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Making NewsHour Weekend: Covering stories at home, abroad and everywhere in between

NewsHour Weekend producers Laura Fong and Mori Rothman reported in 2019 on the impact of the U.S. trade war with China on farmers in North Carolina and Wisconsin a year ahead of the 2020 Republican and Democratic national conventions. They also reported on the effect of climate change near American Samoa and on a diversity debate in New York schools. They sat down with Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As we end one year and begin another, we like to sit down with our producers and bring you some of our favorite segments. It's a chance to update some of the stories we've worked on; to see a little behind the scenes and to bring you a sneak peak of what's ahead. I recently sat down with producers Mori Rothman and Laura Fong for the last of our conversations.

  • So:

    last year we went to both Wisconsin and North Carolina, the states that are gonna be hosting the national conventions for the big political parties this coming year. And was there a common theme when we went to explore what these states are going through, why they're so important?

  • Mori Rothman:

    Both of these states depend on agriculture as a big part of their economy. In Wisconsin, it's dairy; in North Carolina, tobacco is historically a major crop. Tariffs have really hurt the agricultural sectors in both of these states. The question is, when you have these communities who are impacted by policies by the president, are they going to come back and reelect him?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Speaking of agriculture in North Carolina, a state that is as quintessentially tobacco as it can be, we found a story about how some of those farmers are transitioning to a different crop. Why?

  • Laura Fong:

    They were transitioning away to hemp because they found that it is a new potentially cash crop for North Carolina. A lot of the tobacco farmers have some equipment. They have techniques that are, you know, applicable to and transferable to hemp.

  • Randy Edwards:

    We've been for many years curing tobacco, but we're going to transition these barns over to dry hemp. But it's got tobacco right now.

  • Laura Fong:

    And they were hit pretty hard by the tariffs in the war. They also saw that the prices for the CBD oil that you can get from harvesting hemp is in a pretty good spot right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's the FDA position on CBD right now?

  • Laura Fong:

    It's tricky. Right now, the FDA is saying that it's actually illegal to put CBD into food and products that are sold across state lines and also to be marketing it as it's a drug. And, you know, a lot of CBD suppliers and sellers are very careful to not say that it's going to cure you of anything. But they rely on anecdotal evidence from their from their customers.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You know in the context of this trade war, when we went to Wisconsin and we talked about we talked with dairy farmers there who were having a tough time of it.

  • Jim Briggs:

    2014 saw record prices and then, you know, '15, '16, '17, '18, it's all been below cost of production prices for the most part.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Milk, like most goods, is subject to the law of supply and demand. Dairy cows in America make more milk than the U.S. consumes, but in early 2014, China and Southeast Asia began buying a lot more milk from U.S. distributors, driving big profits for farmers. But the American dairy industry overestimated how much milk it could sell overseas and increased production too much. As a result, the price farmers like Briggs get for their milk has fallen nearly 40 percent.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Has it crossed your mind to not keep doing this?

  • Jim Briggs:

    Every day probably at some point in time, you know.Hari Sreenivasan: Has their life changed in the past year?

  • Mori Rothman:

    Over a thousand dairy farms have now closed in Wisconsin. Prices have gotten a little better. So they're getting a little bit more for that gallon of milk that they're selling. And there is some optimism with recent trade deal struck- the USMCA and possibly an end to the China trade war. However, some people are saying, look, we did all of this work. We suffered. Had milk prices go down. And we're back where we started.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the other things that we looked at this year was much closer to home here in New York City. It was a story about the school system here and its quest for integration versus the kind of self- segregated districts that it has become. What provoked that story? What's changed in it now?

  • Laura Fong:

    You know, it goes back to this report in 2014, UCLA found that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. And that really set off a discussion, a debate in New York City in particular. One of the most controversial proposals in the past over the past two years was the proposal to eliminate the specialized high school test.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The Specialized High School Admissions Test, or SHSAT, is the sole requirement to gain admission to one of the eight such high schools in New York City. This year, Stuyvesant High School, the school with the highest cutoff score, made headlines when, out of the nearly 900 slots that it had available, only seven went to black students.

  • Laura Fong:

    Now, that's a test that's protected by state law. So even though the mayor and the school's chancellor wanted to get rid of it, they actually can't. And at this point, that's that proposal is stalled because it has been very controversial.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So it's a test that is for most selective schools in the city system, sort of like top four or five high schools.

  • Laura Fong:

    These are schools that, if you're very academically driven, you really want to go to these schools and they're public schools. It's been a big debate in terms of how do we amp up that representation, how do we get, you know, all kids access to these schools, particularly in immigrant communities. It is a hard discussion that parents and kids, they all they want to go to the best schools. So you can't really blame for that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's happened since our story aired?

  • Laura Fong:

    They are expanding what they call the Discovery program, which is for students who take the test, but just missed the cutoff score and they attend to high what they call a high poverty school. They have a chance to take summer classes and attend one of these schools.

  • Hari:

    OK. Let's talk about the most exciting and fun story that you both got a chance to work on. I'm super jealous. Where did you go?

  • Mori Rothman:

    So we went to Rose Atoll, it's an island about 180 miles east of American Samoa.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    American Samoa for most of our audience–

    Mori Rothman–is pretty far already.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    OK, so you're literally on the other side of the planet. Why are you going to this atoll?

  • Laura Fong:

    It is a national marine monument protected by the United States, and it has this amazing diversity of species, birds, turtles. We thought it was a perfect place to look at what's happening in terms of climate change and also the state of our oceans and our islands.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And most importantly, it doesn't have any humans.

  • Laura Fong:

    The constant din of birds can be heard as you're sleeping, as you're walking around, because there are literally hundreds of thousands of birds that are nesting.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    No natural predator there. So they're the top of the food chain.

    Mori Rothman It's like walking into a nature documentary. Yeah. Birds are everywhere. Turtles are coming up to nest. Even in a place where the U.S. government has protected this island, it's hundreds of miles away from civilization. The impacts of human activity are still reaching it through climate change, through warming waters, higher sea levels, ocean acidification that will threaten the coral reefs that protect the island.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What do they do to make sure that you don't have an impact on the ecosystem there?

  • Laura Fong:

    We had to make sure that all of our clothing was brand new. And that's mainly a precaution to make sure we don't introduce any new bacteria, or insects, especially, invasive species that could potentially disrupt the ecosystem. And we had to put all of our clothing and shoes in quarantine, which means a freezer for two days.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    To kill anything that was on your clothes. And then when you're staying there. We're not talking about the Ritz here.

  • Mori Rothman:

    No, we stayed in tents kind of on a beachy side of the island. We set them up when we first got there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That sounds very dreamy.

  • Mori Rothman:

    Well, at times it is. But the last night we were there, a storm kind of brewed and we had 40 to 50 mile per hour wind gusts hitting our tent. Rain was coming in everywhere. I suddenly started to miss the comforts of home.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What did you get to see when you were there?

  • Mori Rothman:

    I mean, we've got extremely lucky. When we first got to the island, a sea turtle was coming down the beach from nesting and usually sea turtles nest at night. This is a green turtle a species that nests mainly on this one island. The turtle was laboriously making its way down the beach after having just laid what tends to be about a hundred eggs in a nest, making its way back out to sea.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Mori Rothman, Laura Fong, thank you both.

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