It can be hard to keep up with the rush of news that comes out of Washington, D.C. The PBS NewsHour takes a moment every week to bring you important stories happening beyond the Beltway. Here’s what we’re reading now.
1. After #MeToo revelations, concerns about a “culture of impunity”
In its Sunday program, “Last Week Tonight” looked at how the renewed national dialogue over sexual harassment in the workplace doesn’t necessarily lead to change.
HBO host John Oliver and his producers pointed to several #MeToo developments in recent years: multi million-dollar lawsuits against major companies like Ford over workplace harassment, the record number of women running for office in the midterms and the “Time’s Up” campaign to address misconduct in Hollywood.
These are all seeming signs of the nation’s progress on workplace harassment. However, as John Oliver demonstrates in a sobering recall, these victories echo other national reckonings of the past. He asked: What’s actually changed?
The show touched on how changes to address sexual harassment can fall short, especially when there’s little confidence in an institution’s accountability.
The show aired clips from the PBS NewsHour’s own investigation into what more than 30 women described as a culture of harassment and retaliation within the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that has faced lawsuits, consent decrees and a congressional hearing over its apparent inability to address the issue.
In an exclusive PBS NewsHour investigation, 34 women in 13 states told their stories of rape, harassment, gender discrimination and the retaliation that followed after they reported abuse.
One of them, Michaela Myers, said she filed a complaint against her boss that detailed instances of inappropriate physical contact and sexual harassment, but an investigation found no misconduct.
“It just feels like you’re screaming into a void,” Myers told the NewsHour. “This happened and nobody hears that — or they hear it and don’t believe it all.” [Last Week Tonight]
Why it matters:New allegations of sexual misconduct continue to surface against people in power across industries. Yesterday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s former head of personnel was accused of inappropriate sexual relationships with his subordinates. Last week, The New Yorker shared the stories of six women who alleged sexual misconduct against CBS CEO Les Moonves, describing a “profound fear of retaliation” that dates back to the 1980s. Moonves, 68, has denied the allegations.
The CBS Board of Directors is expected to decide whether Moonves can keep his job. The women said they were concerned “there was a culture of impunity around Les Moonves,” Ronan Farrow, who reported the story for The New Yorker, told the PBS NewsHour last week.
“And dozens of other employees, former and current, across CBS backed up that account, and said that the company knew about charges of harassment and retaliation and that Mr. Moonves continued to promote some of the men at the heart of those allegations,” he added.
As for the Forest Service, Tony Tooke stepped down as the agency’s chief in March, shortly after the NewsHour published its investigation. Vicki Christiansen was installed as the interim chief for the agency and announced a 30-day action plan to address harassment and retaliation within the Forest Service.
The USDA Office of Inspector General is expected to release a final report on sexual harassment in the Forest Service later this year.
2. Parents of Sandy Hook victim accuse Zuckerberg of allowing lies to spread
The parents of a boy killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting say Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t done enough to combat the spread of misleading information about the massacre.
In an open letter addressed to the social network founder, Lenny Pozner and Veronique De La Rosa accused Zuckerberg of allowing conspiracy groups to use Facebook as a tool to spread lies about the mass shooting, including claims that massacre was a hoax.
They say these groups have also used the website to threaten and harass families of the victims. Ponzer and De La Rosa added that the situation got so bad for them that they were forced to move and go into hiding.
“Our families are in danger as a direct result of the hundreds of thousands of people who see and believe the lies and hate speech, which you have decided should be protected,” the parents said to Zuckerberg. [The Guardian]
Why it matters:Facebook and other social networks have been criticized recently for failing to come up with comprehensive rules about removing false or harmful content on their platforms.
John Hegeman, the head of Facebook’s News Feed, recently told reporters that the company doesn’t “take down false news.”
“I guess just for being false that doesn’t violate the community standards,” he said after a reporter asked why Facebook allows InfoWars, a page known for spreading misleading information, to remain active.
Earlier this month, Zuckerberg told Recode that he found Holocaust deniers “offensive,” but suggested that he didn’t think Facebook should take down their content.
“I think there are things that different people get wrong — I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong,” he said of Holocaust deniers. “It’s hard to impugn intent and to understand the intent.”
Facebook also came under fire last week after it decided to temporarily shut down the personal account of InfoWars owner Alex Jones. Critics argued that Facebook’s decision to suspend the account amounted to a slap on the wrist since the punishment was only temporary.
3. 23andMe agrees to give pharmaceutical company access to its genetic database
Genealogy company 23andMe announced that it will give a pharmaceutical giant access to its customers’ genetic information as part of a four-year partnership designed to develop medical treatments.
23andMe said in a press release last week that GlaxoSmithKline will use its large genetic database to discover new medicines and develop therapies for unmet medical needs.
“This collaboration will enable us to deliver on what many customers have been asking for — cures or treatments for diseases,” 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki said of the partnership.
But the partnership is raising privacy concerns among health experts who worry that customers’ DNA information can potentially be misused.
“If people are concerned about their social security numbers being stolen, they should be concerned about their genetic information being misused,” Peter Pitts, president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, told Time magazine. “This information is never 100 percent safe. The risk is magnified when one organization shares it with a second organization. When information moves from one place to another, there’s always a chance for it to be intercepted by unintended third parties.” [TIME]
Why it matters: More than five million customers have sent their DNA samples to 23andMe in exchange for information about their ancestry and health. More than 80 percent of those customers have chosen to let the company use the genetic information for research. But those customers may not be fully aware of what they’re actually signing up for, said Dr. Arthur Caplan, head of the division of medical ethics at the New York University School of Medicine.
“Even though they may have signed a thing saying, ‘I’m okay if you use this information for medical research,’ I’m not sure they understood what that really meant. I’m not sure they understood that it meant, ‘Yes, we’ll go to Glaxo, and that’s where we’re really going to make a lot of money off of you,’” Caplan told Time.
Genetic datasets can also be used by law enforcement agencies to find and arrest suspects, as was the case in April when investigators in California used a genealogy website to track down a suspected serial killer, whose identity had been a mystery for decades. Though the arrest was considered a success for law enforcement, others worried that officials may eventually use DNA information from ancestry websites for other purposes, such as deporting immigrants.
Despite privacy concerns, 23andMe says that customers are always in control of their data.
“Participating in 23andMe’s research is always voluntary and requires customers to affirmatively consent to participate,” the company said in a statement. “For those who do consent, their information will be de-identified, so no individual will be identifiable to GSK.”
4. Nia Wilson’s death and the compounding fear around black homicides
Video by ABC7 News
Nia Wilson, 18, was fatally stabbed last weekend after she and her sister were transferring trains at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station in Oakland, California. The attacker, identified as John Lee Cowell, 27, stabbed Wilson in her neck. There appeared to be no altercation before the deadly attack.
Officials have yet to determine a motive for the assault, but Wilson’s family and others in the community have wondered why police haven’t deemed it a racially motivated crime. Police have said there isn’t evidence to support that claim. The sisters are black. Cowell is white. Nia died from her injuries. The investigation is ongoing.
“As young black women, we shouldn’t have to look behind our backs 24-7. We should be living freely like everybody else,” Nia’s sister Letifah Wilson, who was also stabbed, told ABC7 News after the attack.
In a news conference, BART Police Chief Carlos Rojas called Cowell’s actions “an unprovoked, unwarranted, vicious attack.”
Cowell’s family said in a statement that he has a history of mental health issues. He also has a known criminal record. Police arrested Cowell last week for the stabbing. An anonymous tip led to the arrest. [ABC7 News]
Why it matters: Wilson’s death sparked protests in the community last week among those worried that justice won’t come for the 18-year-old. The Washington Post released a story last week that underscores that fear. The newspaper analyzed 26,000 killings seen in major U.S. cities that didn’t result in an arrest. It found that nearly three-fourths of the victims were black.
“Black victims, who accounted for the majority of homicides, were the least likely of any racial group to have their killings result in an arrest,” The Post said in its report. “While police arrested someone in 63 percent of the killings of white victims, they did so in just 47 percent of those with black victims.”
That failure “fuels a vicious cycle,” the newspaper wrote. “It deepens distrust of police among black residents, making them less likely to cooperate in investigations, leading to fewer arrests. As a result, criminals are emboldened and residents’ fears are compounded.”
5. Months of political unrest and violence rock Nicaragua
Nearly 450 people have been killed in the past three months amid violence and unrest in Nicaragua.
Protests have roiled the South American country since April, when President Daniel Ortega announced reforms to an underfunded social security system — specifically, that he would ask citizens to contribute more to resolve the program’s issues. Ortega, under pressure from protesters, eventually withdrew his proposal. But the opposition has broadened to call for Ortega’s resignation. And they’ve been met by a violent police crackdown that has been condemned by the international community, including the United States.
Ortega, 72, first assumed office in 1979 during the leftist Sandinista revolution. Today, critics say Ortega’s government more closely resembles the one he toppled the decades ago, and in recent months he has consolidated power within his government and placed family members in key roles — for instance, his wife is his vice president. He has refused to step aside or move up the country’s elections, currently scheduled for 2021. In the meantime, police are arresting hundreds of people to clear them from protest sites. Many of them face terrorism charges.
“Clearly, the government’s gotten a lot more aggressive, and the human rights situation has gotten a lot worse,” Geoff Thale, the vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, told the NewsHour.[The Los Angeles Times]
Why it matters: Nicaragua is not the only South American country undergoing violent political turmoil. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has remained in power despite economy-crippling sanctions put in place by the U.S. and a nearly three-year-long shortage of food, fuel and other basic needs. He was accused of holding a fraudulent election in May, through which he secured another term.
The PBS NewsHour’s Nick Schifrin reports the latest from Nicaragua.
Venezuelans have fled to neighboring countries, including Colombia, which has taken in nearly a million people. The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the U.S. is “almost three times as great as any other nationality,” according to the Washington Post.
The White House said last week it had imposed sanctions on three Nicaraguan officials and would do so for others involved in police violence, if necessary.
There’s other pressure, too, including a bipartisan Senate bill that zeroes in on Ortega and other Nicaraguan government officials and condemnation from the Organization of American States, Schifrin reported.
“If you hear consistently in every one of those forums that people disapprove of what you do on human rights, people want to see you negotiating, it matters. International pressures and economic pressures, banking and financial sanctions can have an effect,” Thale said.