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Making NewsHour Weekend: On #MeToo, mass shootings and immigration in 2018

In part two of our holiday series "Making NewsHour Weekend," producers Ivette Feliciano and Zachary Green join Hari Sreenivasan to revisit how they approached some of 2018’s top stories, including free speech debates on college campuses, covering a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting with sensitivity and traveling to the only coal plant in Puerto Rico.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    As the end of the year approaches, we're taking a look at some memorable segments of the past year from our producers and reporters who bring you our NewsHour Weekend stories each week. Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with the team of Ivette Feliciano and Zach Green to hear their insight behind the stories.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    You guys got to go to Washington State, where I went to high school, but besides that, this year you did a couple of interesting pieces. One was a topic that I think that a lot of people are struggling with, which is what should be happening on a campus, what is free speech, what is education? How should ideas be challenged? How did that story come about?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So, something that Zach and I kept talking about in the field with this was the so-called "political correctness" culture on college campuses. I think college campuses and universities are more diverse than they've ever been. And we've been seeing so many headlines about students shutting down controversial speakers and the presence of Confederate flags or statues on college campuses. And the difference between hate speech versus free speech and whether we should have safe spaces and trigger warnings in classrooms. So I think all of this is sort of a reflection of diverse students sort of making administrations at these institutions grapple with these really tough questions about how do you incorporate diversifying student bodies in institutions that weren't necessarily initially created to be inclusive spaces.

    So that's what led us to this story at Evergreen State College, a liberal arts school in Olympia. Known for being very lefty, very liberal progressive base, and they've sort of been on the forefront of these diversity and inclusion initiatives that we've all heard about. And every year since the 1970s, they've been holding this Day of Absence event where students of color and faculty of color would gather off campus for a day to talk about the dynamics of race on campus and white students and faculty who wanted to participate would have similar conversations on campus and then the next day everybody would get back together and sort of discuss what they had talked about and learned. Well, last year, as a result of some of the rhetoric that came out of the 2016 presidential election, gay and trans students, immigrant students, students of color said that they felt their identities were sort of under attack. So they wanted to change the event and sort of reclaim the campus space. And they asked white participants to leave campus for the day. That did not sit well with one biology professor.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Students confronted biology professor Bret Weinstein in his classroom. Weinstein, who identifies as politically left, had announced he was boycotting a decades-old event created by students of color at the school. Now he was being accused of racism.

  • BRET WEINSTEIN:

    If one spoke in a way that challenged the narrative that was being advanced, then one was portrayed as in particular racist.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Evergreen is a bastion of progressive values. Classes offered include Alternatives to Capitalism and Climate Justice. Yet, in the days following the protests, students demanded the administration fire the professor and tackle what they call years of institutional racism. They barricaded campus spaces, wrangled with campus police, and stormed the president's office. Since the events, five faculty and staff have resigned their positions. That includes Evergreen's chief of police, Professor Weinstein and his wife, Heather Hyang, who is a chemistry professor.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So Zach, was there something that surprised you as you wer,e not just looking into the research, but once you had the conversations with the people that were out there?

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    Well, I mean for me, this was an interesting topic because I think we've all heard lots of stories coming out of college campuses, speakers getting protested, shouted down, appearances getting canceled. It's always been a really murky topic for me, because while I am a supporter of free speech — obviously, I'm a member of the press — you know, I do sometimes question whether certain, should we be elevating certain speakers, certain types of speech or certain lines of thought or ideas. And coming out of this piece, after doing some of the research, meeting some of the people, it was just murkier than ever before. This was a piece where it seemed like everybody had a very valid, honest point of view and really felt strongly about what they believed in and why they were saying the things they were saying and coming out of it, it was really hard to pick a side.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right. And while you were there, you also talked to, for a totally separate story, a lawyer with a really interesting background. Tell me.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Well, I think it's interesting because our viewers may not realize what it looks like when we go out into the field and shoot these stories. They might picture these elaborate production teams of like 10 people going out into the field and it's literally just us with our cameras and our equipment shooting these pieces so with our modest public television budgets we really try to get bang for our buck when we're at locations. And so after shooting the Evergreen piece, we went over to Seattle and covered one of the first sort of big announcements out of the Trump Administration regarding immigration. That was that the DACA program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, would be ending. So about 800,000 young undocumented people who were able to study and work here without fear of deportation, that program was going to be phased out. But when we were in Seattle, we spent the day with one of these dreamers who was brought here to the United States by his parents at the age of one from Mexico illegally. He actually didn't find out about his status until he was in high school. And what's really interesting about him is that he's actually a lawyer who practices immigration law.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    When you're going into these spaces in immigration court, do you take any special precautions? Do you ever feel fear?

  • LUIS CORTES ROMERO:

    The times that I think about it the most, interestingly enough, is when we win cases, because there are situations where I will win a case from my client and now he's in a better position than I am walking out of that courtroom than when we both walked in there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is it the layers of irony that drew you to this character?

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    I mean, it was just kind of a remarkable story when we came across it. I mean, here's a guy who looks like any other person that you might see on the street. You wouldn't know anything was different about them unless you asked them directly about their status. I mean it was really kind of an education in who the dreamers are and really they're everyone, you know they occupy all different positions in life. And you know, here's this reasonably young guy and he's practicing immigration law, knowing that when he walks into an immigration court to defend one of his clients, he may very well not be able to walk out of it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    A difficult assignment that you both got this year was to cover the tragedy that happened in Pittsburgh, the mass shooting. Tell me a little bit about that process.

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    Well, it was really kind of a shock. I am Jewish. My whole family is Jewish, my wife is Jewish. This one really hit home. This felt like a shooting that could have happened at the synagogue that my wife and I attend, the synagogue that I grew up going to back in my hometown. So Ivette and I got in the car, drove six hours, arrived in the Pittsburgh area at about 2:00 a.m. And on the way, we were just calling people, anybody that we knew who might have connections to the Pittsburgh area. One of our producers here, Mori Rothman, he actually knew somebody who I believe belonged to the synagogue, he'd actually been to the synagogue for a bar mitzvah for one. So he was in the office doing a great job backing us up. He found us a member of the community to speak with. We just hit the ground running and just started meeting with people.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Like most people we talked to here, Emily and her mom were confident they'd know some of the victims, and they were right.

  • EMILY PRESSMAN:

    I know two of them. I know that they were always greeting me, they were very kind souls. They brought smiles to my faces. They were very close to my family, to one of my best friends.

  • STACEY PRESSMAN:

    It's just starting to sink in this morning. I woke up this morning tired with a pit in my stomach, for a second not really knowing why and then I remembered what happened. These are the people who were in synagogue on a Saturday morning. These were the diehards who were there because they wanted to celebrate their faith.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For the audience at home, what is that like dealing with a community in grief when you are part of this small army of press that descends on their town? They are in different stages of shock and here you are trying to get information out of them to share with a larger audience. What are some of the challenges?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Well, I think one of the special things about working for a place like PBS NewsHour Weekend is that they're never going to ask us to go and hound people who are mourning. You know, we're not going up to doors and knocking on doors and asking people to speak when they're not ready to. So that's something we were definitely sensitive to and try to maintain our distance from places where people were grieving and just really tried to reach out and find people who were willing to engage and wanted to have a platform, sort of a cathartic experience of just speaking about their grief.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    There's a group of stories that you both have done out of Puerto Rico, in fact we had kind of a special earlier this year that highlighted some of those stories. One of the stories that we didn't get to was one on coal ash. First tell us what was the story, what made you want to do it?

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    I was sort of interested in what the environmental impact of a storm like Maria in a place like Puerto Rico, which is a very small island and was already going through an economic crisis, which was no doubt impacting environmental problems that existed before the hurricane. So I started calling around to different environmental groups on Puerto Rico and it was actually in speaking with a member of the Sierra Club there that I found out that there was this coal plant, the only coal plant in Puerto Rico, was situated in this small coastal city called Guayama, which is on the southeastern tip of the island, and that at this coal plant there is a five-story mound of what was described to me as coal ash, which had been completely uncovered during the hurricane, and that this has been a real thorn in the side of residents in that town who say that the coal plant and this big mound of material outside of it has been causing real health problems in their community.

  • ALBERTO COLON DEL VALLE:

    Right now, we have roads here that are filled in with it so much that once they become dry you can see the ash moving freely on the surface blowing around, that same ash is going from the road into the air and it will eventually go into the water where it will contaminate the aquifer.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Local fear of contamination from the coal ash has become so widespread that protesters have gathered along the roads when the material is shipped from the plant.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    What I loved about covering the story was it wasn't just a reactive piece about devastation in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria. It was covering an issue that predated the hurricane, but that was impacted by it. My family is from Puerto Rico, it was my first time back on the island after the hurricane so I was sort of nervous about what it would be like to be there after such devastation. We're trying to find a hotel. The phones were down so we couldn't get in contact, but you know, as we saw, life was sort of moving on and people were really resilient.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's not all doom and gloom in the types of stories that you pick. You guys went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, one of the best in the world. Why?

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    I love this story. Well, this was a story that Ivette actually came across. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a really beautiful, fascinating place — they're doing some really amazing research into the health of the oceans.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    Imagine opening up a book at the last chapter and trying to understand what the story is about. We're kind of doing that right now with the ocean.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Science Director Kyle Van Houtan heads the project.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTAN:

    We really want to generate an informed baseline for what a healthy ocean is. To do that, we need more data than we have, and so we have to get creative.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    To that end, the year-old ocean memory lab draws on specimens collected by naturalists and explorers over the last two centuries, using modern techniques, lab scientists can analyze those specimens and compare them with samples collected today.

  • KYLE VAN HOUTEN:

    The seabirds and the turtles and the whales. All these things that we study, they're essentially drones taking information about their ecosystem experience out in the ocean and recording it in their feathers, in their bones, in their blubber, various parts of their body and storing that away.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And then there's also, you had a chance to catch up with a comedian and talking about topics that are pretty uncomfortable to parts of the audience, but also pretty funny in the way that it gets presented.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    So when we're leaving an interview and driving to the next location or to the hotel for the night, we want to just listen to a comedy podcast. We do a lot of that. Zach introduced me to this comedian called Cameron Esposito. She's a young, gay, female comedian who in the wake of the Me Too movement decided to write a comedy special called "Rape Jokes," where she talks about her own experience with sexual violence.

  • CAMERON ESPOSITO:

    We've had rape jokes forever, but those jokes have usually been like "Rape." That's the full joke.

    That's always been a concept that was shorthand for a certain type of joke. So it always meant a joke that is told by somebody who's not a survivor, that's generally like dismissive of the concept of rape. Usually was brought up as sort of a taboo punchy word that would just get a laugh based on the comic being brave enough to speak it.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Esposito wants to make sure the national conversation around sexual assault includes the voices of survivors.

  • CAMERON ESPOSITO:

    There were certain folks, high-profile folks who were being called out as abusers who were then losing opportunities and then it seemed like the cycle was moving on to rehabbing those people's images. And that it was making a circle without ever talking about what it's like to be a survivor.

  • ZACHARY GREEN:

    I mean it's really interesting to see how Me Too has affected the world of comedy and to see sort of how it's changed material, how it's changed the way people approach that topic.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And it's just an intense performance. A personal one, which makes it more powerful.

    Well, thank you both for coming by, Zachary Green and Ivette Feliciano.

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