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05 Aug 15:48

I’m Here

by Reza
05 Aug 15:42

Uighur model sends rare video from Chinese detention

By John Sudworth BBC News

An image sent by Merdan Ghappar appears to show him handcuffed
Image caption An image sent by Merdan Ghappar appears to show him handcuffed in a cell

Merdan Ghappar was used to posing for the camera.

As a model for the massive Chinese online retailer Taobao, the 31-year-old was well paid to flaunt his good looks in slick promotional videos for clothing brands.

But one video of Mr Ghappar is different. Instead of a glitzy studio or fashionable city street, the backdrop is a bare room with grubby walls and steel mesh on the window. And in place of the posing, Mr Ghappar sits silently with an anxious expression on his face.

Holding the camera with his right hand, he reveals his dirty clothes, his swollen ankles, and a set of handcuffs fixing his left wrist to the metal frame of the bed - the only piece of furniture in the room.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionThe video Uighur model Merdan Ghappar filmed inside China's detention system

The video of Mr Ghappar, along with a number of accompanying text messages also passed to the BBC, together provide a chilling and extremely rare first-hand account of China's highly secure and secretive detention system - sent directly from the inside.

The material adds to the body of evidence documenting the impact of China's fight against what it calls the "three evil forces" of separatism, terrorism, and extremism in the country's far western region of Xinjiang.

Over the past few years, credible estimates suggest, more than one million Uighurs and other minorities have been forced into a network of highly secure camps in Xinjiang that China has insisted are voluntary schools for anti-extremism training.

Thousands of children have been separated from their parents and, recent research shows, women have been forcibly subjected to methods of birth control.

In addition to the clear allegations of torture and abuse, Mr Ghappar's account appears to provide evidence that, despite China's insistence that most re-education camps have been closed, Uighurs are still being detained in significant numbers and held without charge.

It also contains new details about the huge psychological pressure placed on Uighur communities, including a document he photographed which calls on children as young as 13 to "repent and surrender".

Image caption Part of a document sent by Merdan Ghappar calling on children to 'repent and surrender'

And with Xinjiang currently experiencing a spike in the number of coronavirus infections, the dirty and crowded conditions he describes highlight the serious risk of contagion posed by this kind of mass detention during a global pandemic.

The BBC sent detailed requests for comment to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Xinjiang authorities but neither responded.

Mr Ghappar's family, who have not heard from him since the messages stopped five months ago, are aware that the release of the four minute, thirty-eight second video of him in his cell might increase the pressure and punishment he faces.

But they say it is their last hope, both to highlight his case and the plight of the Uighurs in general.

His uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar, who now lives in the Netherlands, believes the video could galvanise public opinion in the same way that footage of the police treatment of George Floyd became a powerful symbol of racial discrimination in the US.

"They have both faced brutality for their race," he says.

"But while in America people are raising their voices, in our case there is silence."

In 2009, Merdan Ghappar - like many Uighurs at that time - left Xinjiang to seek opportunity in China's wealthier cities in the east.

Having studied dance at Xinjiang Arts University, he found work first as a dancer and then, a few years later, as a model in the southern Chinese city of Foshan. Friends say Mr Ghappar could earn up to 10,000 Rmb (£1,000) per day.

His story reads like an advert for the country's dynamic, booming economy and President Xi Jinping's "China Dream". But the Uighurs, with their Turkic language, Islamic faith and ethnic ties to the peoples and cultures of central Asia, have long been viewed as an object of suspicion by Chinese rulers and faced discrimination in wider society.

Mr Ghappar's relatives say that Mr Ghappar was told it would be best for his modelling career to downplay his Uighur identity and refer to his facial features as "half-European".

Image copyright Wu Zi Yang Agency
Image caption Merdan Ghappar moved from Xinjiang in 2009 to pursue a modelling career

And although he had earned enough money to buy a sizeable apartment, they say he was unable to register it in his own name, instead having to use the name of a Han Chinese friend.

But those injustices now seem mild by comparison with what was to come.

Ever since two brutal attacks targeting pedestrians and commuters in Beijing in 2013 and the city of Kunming in 2014 - blamed by China on Uighur separatists - the state has begun to view Uighur culture as not only suspicious but seditious.

By 2018, when the state had come up with its answer - the sprawling system of camps and jails built rapidly and extensively across Xinjiang - Mr Ghappar was still living in Foshan, where his life was about to take an abrupt turn for the worse.

In August that year, he was arrested and sentenced to 16 months in prison for selling cannabis, a charge his friends insist was trumped up.

Whether truly guilty or not, there was little chance of an acquittal, with statistics showing that more than 99% of defendants brought before Chinese criminal courts are convicted.

Image caption Up to a million Muslims are thought to have been detained in prison camps across Xinjiang

But, upon his release in November 2019, any relief he felt at having served his time was short lived. Little more than a month later, police knocked on his door, telling him he needed to return to Xinjiang to complete a routine registration procedure.

The BBC has seen evidence that appears to show he was not suspected of any further offence, with authorities simply stating that "he may need to do a few days of education at his local community" - a euphemism for the camps.

On 15 January this year, his friends and family were allowed to bring warm clothes and his phone to the airport, before he was put on a flight from Foshan and escorted by two officers back to his home city of Kucha in Xinjiang.

There is evidence of other Uighurs being forced to return home, either from elsewhere in China or from abroad, and Mr Ghappar's family were convinced that he had disappeared into the re-education camps.

But more than a month later they received some extraordinary news.

Somehow, he had managed to get access to his phone and was using it to communicate with the outside world.

Merdan Ghappar's text messages, said to have been sent from the same room as his self-shot video, paint an even more terrifying picture of his experience after arriving in Xinjiang.

Written via the Chinese social media app WeChat, he explains that he was first kept in a police jail in Kucha.

"I saw 50 to 60 people detained in a small room no bigger than 50 square metres, men on the right, women on the left," he writes.

"Everyone was wearing a so-called 'four-piece-suit', a black head sack, handcuffs, leg shackles and an iron chain connecting the cuffs to the shackles."

China's use of these combined hand and leg cuffs has been criticised in the past by human rights groups.

Mr Ghappar was made to wear the device and, joining his fellow inmates in a caged-off area covering around two-thirds of the cell, he found there was no room to lie down and sleep.

"I lifted the sack on my head and told the police officer that the handcuffs were so tight they hurt my wrists," he writes in one of the text messages.

"He shouted fiercely at me, saying 'If you remove your hood again, I will beat you to death'. And after that I dared not to talk," he adds.

"Dying here is the last thing I want."

He writes about the constant sound of screaming, coming from elsewhere in the jail. "Interrogation rooms," he suggested.

And he describes squalid and unsanitary conditions - inmates suffering from lice while sharing just a handful of plastic bowls and spoons between them all.

"Before eating, the police would ask people with infectious diseases to put their hands up and they'd be the last to eat," he writes.

"But if you want to eat earlier, you can remain silent. It's a moral issue, do you understand?"

Then, on 22 January, with China at the height of its coronavirus crisis, news of a massive, nationwide attempt to control the epidemic reached the prisoners.

Mr Ghappar's account suggests the enforcement of quarantine rules were much stricter in Xinjiang than elsewhere. At one point, four young men, aged between 16 and 20, were brought into the cell.

"During the epidemic period they were found outside playing a kind of game like baseball," he writes.

"They were brought to the police station and beaten until they screamed like babies, the skin on their buttocks split open and they couldn't sit down."

The policemen began making all the prisoners wear masks, although they still had to remain hooded in the stuffy, over-crowded cell.

"A hood and a mask - there was even less air," he writes.

When the officers later came around with thermometers, several inmates including Mr Ghappar, registered higher than the normal body temperature of 37C (98.6F).

Still wearing his "four-piece suit", he was moved upstairs to another room where the guards kept the windows open at night, making the air so cold that he could not sleep.

There, he said, the sounds of torture were much clearer.

"One time I heard a man screaming from morning until evening," he says.

A few days later, the prisoners were loaded onto minibuses and sent away to an unknown location. Mr Ghappar, who was suffering from a cold and with his nose running, was separated from the rest and taken to the facility seen in the video he sent - a place he described as an "epidemic control centre". Once there, he was handcuffed to the bed.

"My whole body is covered in lice. Every day I catch them and pick them off from my body - it's so itchy," he writes.

"Of course, the environment here is better than the police station with all those people. Here I live alone, but there are two people guarding me."

It was the slightly more relaxed regime that gave him, he says, the opportunity he needed to get word out. His phone appears to have remained unnoticed by the authorities among his personal belongings, some of which he was given access to in his new place of imprisonment.

After 18 days inside the police jail, he was suddenly and secretly in touch with the outside world.

For a few days he described his experiences. Then, suddenly, the messages stopped.

Nothing has been heard from Mr Ghappar since. The authorities have provided no formal notification of his whereabouts, nor any reason for his continued detention.

It is impossible to independently verify the authenticity of the text messages. But experts say that the video footage appears to be genuine, in particular because of the propaganda messages that can be heard in the background.

"Xinjiang has never been an 'East Turkistan'", says an announcement in both Uighur and Chinese from a loudspeaker outside his window.

"Separatist forces at home and abroad have politicised this geographical term and called for those who speak Turkic languages and believe in Islam to unite," the announcement says.

James Millward, a professor of history at Georgetown University and an expert on China's policies in Xinjiang, translated and analysed Mr Ghappar's text messages for the BBC.

He says they are consistent with other well documented cases, from his transportation back to Xinjiang and the initial processing in crowded, unsanitary conditions.

"This firsthand description of the police holding cell is very, very vivid," Professor Millward says.

"He writes in very good Chinese and gives, frankly, a lot of horrific detail about the way these people are treated. So, it's quite a rare source."

Dr Adrian Zenz, a senior fellow in China studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and another leading Xinjiang scholar, suggests that the video's real value is what it says about the Chinese government claim that the camp system is being wound down.

"It is extremely significant," Dr Zenz says. "This testimony shows that the whole system of detaining people, sorting them and then feeding them into extra judicial internment… that this is very much ongoing."

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionChina's ambassador: "There is no such concentration camp in Xinjiang"

Another layer of credibility is provided by a photograph of a document that sources say Mr Ghappar sent after finding it on the floor of one of the epidemic control centre toilets.

The document refers to a speech made by the Communist Party Secretary of Aksu Prefecture, and the date and location suggest it could well have still been circulating in official circles in the city of Kucha around the time of Mr Ghappar's detention.

The document's call for children as young as 13 to be encouraged to "repent for their mistakes and voluntarily surrender" appears to be new evidence of the extent of China's monitoring and control of the thoughts and behaviours of the Uighurs and other minorities.

"I think this is the first time I've seen an official notice of minors being held responsible for their religious activity," says Dr Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder who has researched and written extensively about the Uighurs.

Despite the risk that the publication of Merdan Ghappar's video and text messages will put him at risk of longer or harsher punishment, those close to him say they no longer have any choice.

"Staying silent will not help him either," says his uncle, Abdulhakim Ghappar, from his home in Amsterdam.

Image caption Demonstrators in Paris hold signs calling for an end to the Uighur "genocide"

Abdulhakim says he kept in regular touch with his nephew before he was taken into detention, and he believes - as has been well documented in other cases - that this overseas connection is one of the reasons Mr Ghappar was detained.

"Yes, I am 100% sure about it," he said. "He was detained just because I am abroad and I take part in protests against Chinese human rights abuses."

Abdulhakim's activism, which began in 2009 in Xinjiang when he helped hand out flyers ahead of a large-scale protest in the city of Urumqi, was the reason he fled to the Netherlands in the first place.

The protest in Urumqi later spilled into a series of violent riots which, Chinese authorities say, claimed nearly 200 lives and are seen as another one of the major turning points towards its tightening control over the region.

Told that the Chinese authorities were seeking his arrest, Abdulhakim got himself a passport and left. He has never been back.

He insists that all of his political activities, both inside China and abroad, have been peaceful, and his nephew, he says, has never shown any interest in politics at all.

The list of questions sent by the BBC to the Chinese authorities asked them to confirm whether Merdan Ghappar or his uncle are suspected of any crime in China.

It also asked why Mr Ghappar was shackled to a bed, and for a response from the authorities to his other allegations of mistreatment and torture.

None of the questions was answered.

Wherever Merdan Ghappar is now, one thing is clear.

Whether his earlier conviction for a drugs offence was just or not, his current detention is proof that even well-educated and relatively successful Uighurs can become a target of the internment system.

"This young man, as a fashion model, has a successful career already," said Professor Millward. "He speaks wonderful Chinese, writes very well and uses fancy phrases, so clearly this is not someone who needs education for a vocational purpose."

Dr Adrian Zenz argues that this is the point of the system.

"It doesn't actually matter so much what the background of the person is," he says.

"What matters is that their loyalty has been tested by the system. At some point almost everybody is going to experience some form of internment or re-education, everybody is going to be subjected to this system."

The Chinese government denies that it is persecuting the Uighur population. After heavy criticism over the issue recently from the US, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, invoked the death of George Floyd, saying that Uighurs in Xinjiang were free in comparison to African Americans in the US.

But for Merdan Ghappar's family, haunted by the image of him chained to a bed in an unknown location, there is a connection between the two cases.

"When I saw the George Floyd video it reminded me of my nephew's own video," says Merdan's uncle Abdulhakim.

"The entire Uighur people are just like George Floyd now," he says. "We can't breathe."

More coverage of China's hidden camps

05 Aug 14:39

Lord & Taylor closing in White Flint after company files for bankruptcy

By Dan Schere

| Published:

Lord & Taylor on the former White Flint Mall site is closing permanently as part of the company's chapter 11 bankruptcy filing

File photo

Lord & Taylor will close its doors in North Bethesda after spending the last five years on Rockville Pike by itself following the closure of White Flint Mall.

The department store filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on Sunday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Eastern District of Virginia, according to a press release. Under chapter 11, a company can continue to operate while it reorganizes its finances.

The press release included 19 locations around the country scheduled to close, including North Bethesda.

Forbes first reported Lord & Taylor’s bankruptcy filing and list of store closures on Sunday. In May, Reuters reported that the chain had planned to file for bankruptcy, quoting several unnamed sources.

The impending closure of the White Flint store follows a yearslong legal battle between Lord & Taylor and the owners of the former mall property.

White Flint Mall closed in January 2015. Later that year, a jury in federal court ruled that the mall property’s owners, Lerner Enterprises and the Tower Companies, must pay Lord & Taylor $31 million.

The department store company had sued the owners, alleging that by closing the mall, they breached a 1975 agreement that required them to maintain the mall as a “first-class” shopping destination until 2042.

In 2017, a three-judge panel upheld the jury’s ruling after the owners tried to appeal the decision. A dispute about the owners’ legal fees continued into 2018.

Lord & Taylor’s website states that the White Flint store is having a store closing sale. Returns are no longer being accepted there. Returns also will not be accepted online after Aug. 14, the notice said.

The store is currently open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed Monday and Tuesday, according to the website.

Neither representatives from Lord & Taylor nor attorneys representing the company in court could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

It remains unclear what the fate of the Lord & Taylor at 5255 Western Ave. in the Friendship Heights area of D.C. will be. That store was not on the company press release list of those scheduled to close.

Dan Schere can be reached at

County has had 755 confirmed deaths; no new deaths reported Wednesday

Plus: Potomac toy store closing after 41 years; Gene and cell therapy company moves to bigger space in Rockville

Plus: House bill would remove white supremacist’s name from Chevy Chase fountain; Video of Ledecky swimming with milk on her head seen millions of times

05 Aug 14:39

The mysterious case of man who can read letters—but not numbers—exposes roots of consciousness

A man attempts to draw what he sees when looking at an 8. Numerals fail to register in his brain.

SCHUBERT ET AL., PNAS, 117, 16055 (2020)

By Sam Kean

In the video, the man sounds creeped out. “This is too strange for words,” he mutters. He’s holding a plate-size, green foam 8. When upright, it looks to him like an incoherent jumble. But when he rotates it 90°, the shape snaps into focus; it looks like “a mask.” He begins to rotate the numeral back and forth, watching it melt and cohere over and over. He finally hands it to a nearby scientist, saying, “You gotta take that away.”

This man, known as RFS, is the subject of a new case study that would have made neurologist Oliver Sacks proud. RFS can read words and letters just fine. But as researchers report this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he cannot see numerals at all—at least not consciously. His amazingly specific deficit could help neuroscientists understand how conscious awareness arises in the brain. “What it tells me,” says Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute who specializes in consciousness, “is that … you can get dissociation between cognition and consciousness.”

RFS, an engineering geologist in his late 60s, began to experience headaches, amnesia, tremors, and difficulty walking in October 2010. Doctors couldn’t determine the cause—they suspected a stroke, then discovered that he had a disease called corticobasal syndrome, which kills off brain cells.

Then, numbers began to look strange to RFS. The 4 on a clock might flip backward, for instance. Eventually, numerals deteriorated into messy, unrecognizable “spaghetti” blobs—a disaster for someone who did math all the time. And it wasn’t just his work that suffered. He couldn’t read price tags or speed limit signs. At hotels, he had to mark the doorframe of his room with a magic marker.

SCHUBERT ET AL., PNAS, 117, 16055 (2020)

Yet he could still do mental arithmetic and perform other mathematical operations. And strangely, although the digits 2 through 9 were scrambled, 0 and 1 looked normal—perhaps because those digits resemble letters, which RFS could read, or perhaps because they have associations with deep concepts such as absence and unity, which might allow his brain to process them. He eventually mastered an entirely new digit system (where ⌊ stood for 2, ⌈ for 8, etc.); determined to keep working, he had his computer rigged to present the new numerals onscreen.

In 2011, RFS was referred to a team of neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) led by Michael McCloskey and his then–graduate students Teresa Schubert and David Rothlein. One test the trio ran with RFS involved the green foam 8. Schubert, now at Harvard University, says the team hoped that touching the numeral would help RFS see it, but no. He could feel the figure’s curves, but its image remained stubbornly scrambled—probably, Schubert says, because the brain prioritizes sight over other senses. And feeling one thing but seeing another left RFS disturbed, McCloskey says. “He understood that he could contribute to scientific knowledge, and he was willing to put up with the testing. But it was not pleasant.”

The tests also revealed that RFS’s deficit is not a simple visual malfunction. After all, he could see the foam 8’s shape clearly in certain orientations. Rather, the deficit depended on his interpretation: As soon as his unconscious brain circuits registered a number, everything went haywire. That he could still interpret letters, Schubert says, lends support to the idea that the brain has a specialized module for processing numbers. And his ability to recognize and manipulate new figures as representations of numbers suggests his higher level math abilities remained intact.

Perhaps more important, RFS’s deficit could shed light on how conscious awareness arises. In another test, the JHU scientists showed him large numbers and letters with tiny drawings of faces embedded inside them. When viewing the letters with embedded faces, RFS reported seeing both. Moreover, an electroencephalogram (EEG) recorded a characteristic brain wave called N170 that’s strongly associated with seeing faces.

In contrast, when shown numbers with embedded faces, the number’s effect apparently swamped that of the face: RFS reported seeing neither; everything looked like spaghetti. Yet an EEG still showed the characteristic N170 spike for registering faces. Somehow, his brain was still processing and identifying a face—a fairly high-level skill—even though his conscious mind was oblivious. This deficit shows high-level cognitive processing and consciousness are distinct, Koch says. “You can get one without the other.”

Sara Ajina, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford who studies visual awareness deficits such as blindsight—a residual, unconscious “sight” in people with damage to the brain’s visual system—says she’s often skeptical about how much scientists can learn from single case studies. But she praised the work with RFS for moving beyond just his basic number deficit to exploring how it affected face recognition and other higher level abilities.

Still, Ajina wishes the JHU team had embedded a wider variety of stimuli in the numbers. For instance, could RFS have noticed movement within the numbers, as opposed to static drawings? Given the human brain’s emphasis on sight, perhaps movement could break through the number tangles and penetrate his conscious awareness.

Sadly, such questions will likely be impossible to answer: RFS’s health has deteriorated recently, limiting his ability to speak and move. But his unique deficits and willingness to endure unsettling tests have already taught researchers a lot. “It’s a very nice demonstration of all that awareness requires,” Schubert says—as well as a reminder of just how fragile that gift is.

05 Aug 14:15

Obesity not defined by weight, says new guideline

Person standing on scales Image copyright Getty Images

Obesity should be defined by a person's health - not just their weight, says a new Canadian clinical guideline.

It also advises doctors to go beyond simply recommending diet and exercise.

Instead, they should focus on the root causes of weight gain and take a holistic approach to health.

The guideline, which was published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on Tuesday, specifically admonished weight-related stigma against patients in the health system.

"The dominant cultural narrative regarding obesity fuels assumptions about personal irresponsibility and lack of willpower and casts blame and shame upon people living with obesity," the guideline, which is intended to be used by primary care physicians in diagnosing and treating obesity in their daily practice, states.

Ximena Ramos-Salas, the director of research and policy at Obesity Canada and one of the guideline's authors, said research shows many doctors discriminate against obese patients, and that can lead to worse health outcomes irrespective of their weight.

"Weight bias is not just about believing the wrong thing about obesity," she told the BBC. "Weight bias actually has an effect on the behaviour of healthcare practitioners."

The rate of obesity has tripled over the past three decades in Canada, and now about one in four Canadians is obese according to Statistics Canada.

The guideline had not been updated since 2006. The new version was funded by Obesity Canada, the Canadian Association of Bariatric Physicians and Surgeons and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research through a Strategy for Patient-Oriented Research grant.

Although the latest advice still recommends using diagnostic criteria like the body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, it acknowledges their clinical limitations and says doctors should focus more on how weight impacts a person's health.

Small reductions in weight, of about 3-5%, can lead to health improvements and an obese person's "best weight" might not be their "ideal weight" according to BMI, the guideline says.

It emphasises that obesity is a complex, chronic condition that needs lifelong management.

"For a long time we've associated obesity as a lifestyle behaviour... It's been a lot of shame and blame before," Ms Ramos-Salas says.

"People living with obesity need support like people living with any other chronic disease."

But instead of simply advising patients to "eat less, move more", the guideline encourages doctors to provide supports along the lines of psychological therapy, medication and bariatric surgery like gastric-bypass surgery.

The guideline doesn't completely do away with standard weight-loss advice.

"All individuals, regardless of body size or composition, would benefit from adopting a healthy, well-balanced eating pattern and engaging in regular physical activity," it says.

However, it notes that keeping the weight off is often difficult because the brain will compensate by feeling more hungry, thus encouraging people to eat more.

Many studies have shown that most people who lose weight on a diet gain it back.

"Diets don't work," Ms Ramos-Salas says.

Physicians should also ask permission before discussing a patient's weight, and work with them to focus on health goals that matter to them, instead of just telling them to cut calories.

05 Aug 11:59

Trump backtracks on mail-in voting, says it's OK to do in Florida

Despite Trump's insistence to the contrary, cases of election fraud in the U.S. are exceedingly rare, though experts acknowledge that there are some slightly higher fraud risks associated with mail-in balloting when proper security measures are not put in place.

Just last week, Trump floated delaying November’s election until it was safer to do so in person, a suggestion he is not constitutionally empowered to enact. Trump suggested moving Election Day because an influx in mail-in voting, a practice many have advocated to avoid spreading the coronavirus at polling places, would lead to a “rigged” election that would amount to the “greatest election disaster in history.”

On Monday the president claimed the right to issue an executive order pertaining to his concerns about mail-in voting, another legally dubious proposition, and pledged to sue Nevada over its plans to mail ballots to all registered voters. Asked about what authority the president might have to issue an executive order on mail-in voting, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany declined to answer.

But the sudden change in heart on mail-in voting in Florida, which McEnany said stemmed from an unidentified court victory regarding voting in the state, comes as polls in Trump’s adopted home state — and a must-win battleground in November — show him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden.

The press secretary referred questions on the Florida legal win to the Trump campaign, which said that the president’s tweet “speaks for itself.”

“What most states call ‘absentee voting’ has long been termed ‘vote-by-mail’ in Florida — it’s been that way for years, and it works,” deputy national press secretary Thea McDonald said in an emailed statement, adding that “President Trump is fighting to make sure every valid vote counts” and denouncing “train wreck primaries” in New York and California, “where we saw Democrats’ rush to implement a faulty universal vote-by-mail system.”

“Wake up folks, Democrats are the people rigging and delaying elections,” McDonald asserted.

Last month, a Democratic super-PAC and other left-leaning groups agreed to drop a voting-related lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party on the eve of a federal trial, which McDonald pointed to Tuesday. Priorities USA and other groups were seeking to require paid postage on ballots and to push back the deadline for when ballots needed to be received by elections offices in order to still be counted. But state officials agreed to conduct outreach to local election officials and voters to educate them about various aspects of mail-in voting.

The president's shift on mail-in voting also comes as new data indicates the president’s near-daily assault on the practice may backfire on him come November.

Private polling shared with POLITICO this week showed that Republicans have become overwhelmingly concerned about mail balloting. In a state where presidential elections are regularly decided by thin margins, 15 percent of Trump voters in Florida said that getting a ballot in the mail would make them less likely to vote in the fall.

Trump’s assault on mail voting threatens his reelection bidAs of last month, Florida Democrats said they held a 500,000-voter advantage over Republicans in enrollment for mail-in voting, a shift away from the GOP's long-held dominance among absentee ballot-casters. The 500,000-voter gap is more than four times the slim margin by which Trump won Florida in 2016.

Florida has allowed excuse-free mail-in voting since its 2000 election disaster, and in recent years has scrubbed all references to “absentee” voting in state law due to increasing confusion between the two terms. In July, amid Republicans’ push to register its voters to cast their ballot by mail, the party blurred out a portion of one of Trump’s ubiquitous tweets on the issue.

Asked about the shift in a coronavirus briefing Tuesday evening, Trump praised the state’s current and former GOP governors as he asserted that “over a long period of time” the state has handled mail-in ballots “extremely professionally.” Trump would not say what differentiated Florida from the rest of the country, including other states that routinely conduct elections entirely by mail, but he indicated that his concerns lay with states trying to quickly scale up their vote-by-mail operations.

“In the case of Florida, they've done a great job, they've had tremendous success with it, they've made it really terrific. This took years to do. This doesn't take weeks or months,” he said, comparing the state to Nevada, which moved to expand mail-in voting in the last week, and suggesting that the U.S Postal Service was uniquely “built up” in Florida.

Trump has repeatedly issued warnings of chaos surrounding the widespread use of mail-in ballots, pointing to a pair of New York City primaries that have yet to be called more than a month later and a municipal election in New Jersey that saw almost 20 percent of mail-in votes thrown out. Trump has also accused the U.S. Postal Service of being unprepared to handle a surge of mail-in ballots, though the agency rejected that notion on Monday.

McEnany insisted Tuesday that Trump's stance had not changed, and that he was still opposed to so-called universal mail-in voting, where states proactively mail ballots to every registered voter without requiring a request. Several states already conduct their elections entirely by mail, and an analysis last month of voting in three such states found that officials identified an infinitesimal amount of potentially fraudulent ballots.

Florida will be one of 42 states that in November will effectively allow for, at a minimum, no-excuse absentee balloting — meaning any voter, regardless of age, health or location on Election Day, will be able to vote by mail should they choose to do so.

Gary Fineout and Matthew Choi contributed to this report.

05 Aug 11:36

Mulan is coming to Disney+ as a $30 rental

by Alissa Wilkinson
Liu Yifei in traditional Chinese dress in Disney’s 2020 Mulan. Liu Yifei, star of Disney’s live-action Mulan, which will be released on the Disney+ streaming platform for an additional fee on September 4. | Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Along with Tenet’s staggered release and big announcements from AMC and Universal, it’s a sign of change.

The coronavirus pandemic has trashed the entertainment industry, and one of its highest-profile targets has been Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan. Originally slated to release on March 27, the film’s theatrical debut was moved to July 24, then August 21, then taken off the calendar entirely.

But on an earnings call with investors, Disney executives announced that Mulan will be released on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, on September 4. It will come with a fee attached: Subscribers will pay an additional $29.99 to rent the film. In countries without Disney+ — including China, the country in which Mulan is set — the company plans to release the film in theaters that same day.

This is big news for Disney, which had delayed the film to make sure it could maximize profits with a theatrical release. But theaters around the world closed down in March out of concerns for public health and safety, and they remain closed in many countries. With US theaters in a state of limbo heading into fall, the company’s new release plans are a kind of trial balloon that will indicate whether at-home audiences are willing to pay $29.99 to see a movie they won’t even own.

That sounds like a lot of money, though it’s still less than the cost of two or three movie tickets in many cities. (The average price of a movie ticket nationwide in 2019 hovered around $9.) Add popcorn and soda and the cost is about the same, albeit without the theatrical experience. For some audiences, that may be enough; for others, the plethora of at-home entertainment available on streaming platforms may suffice until the film’s price drops.

On August 4, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the decision was made due to the pandemic and didn’t represent a future shift in Disney’s business model. But it’s not hard to imagine that if Mulan is very successful on Disney+, the company will begin to ponder more permanent changes.

Liu Yifei shoots an arrow from a bow in Mulan. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures
The Mulan decision is one in a string of pandemic-prompted changes to release schedules.

The Mulan news is just the latest in a string of recent announcements indicating the pandemic has hastened seismic changes that industry insiders have long believed would eventually arrive.

A week earlier, Warner Bros. announced that the summer’s other extensively delayed, high-profile release, Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet, would open in 70 international territories on August 26 before a limited release in US theaters on September 3. The film was initially pushed back in the US to ensure a simultaneous release worldwide. But as other countries reopened after lockdown, so did their theaters. Meanwhile, the vast majority of US theaters (with the exception of drive-ins) remain closed as states suffer from spiking infection rates and few signs of the virus slowing.

And on July 29, megaplex chain AMC and Universal, one of Hollywood’s six major studios, announced they’d struck a deal to shorten the window between a movie’s theatrical and digital releases. Traditionally, a movie wouldn’t be available on on-demand platforms (such as iTunes and Amazon Prime) until months after it arrived in theaters; but now, Universal’s movies can go digital a mere 17 days after debuting in AMC’s theaters. (AMC will share a cut of the profits.)

A month past 2020’s midway point, it seems foolhardy to speculate about what these changes truly mean for the future of movies. Theaters and theater chains are in danger of going out of business completely. Even when they do reopen, it will be a long time before they can open at full capacity. And the fact that concessions are a big part of the theatrical business in the US — but you can’t wear a mask and munch popcorn at the same time — is another giant wrinkle. Movie studios hold the cards for now, but they’re not immune to financial turmoil. With the expensive, large-scale productions that keep the lights on experiencing not only delayed releases but also production challenges, it’s not clear how many studios will last, either. Compact release windows and higher digital-rental fees, if audiences become accustomed to them, may start to seem inevitable.

There are more questions than answers, and anyone who acts as if they know the future of movies right now is either a fool or trying to sell someone something. Changes in Hollywood have almost always been propelled by new technologies and social norms, from the addition of sound to the changes in self-censorship models. The advent of streaming is yet another chapter in that book. But one thing is clear: The decision by one of the entertainment industry’s biggest businesses to deliver a tentpole release like Mulan to its digital service signals that the pandemic, and the US’s failure to contain it, is what’s shifting tectonic plates this time around.

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05 Aug 11:32

It’s easier than ever to make hand sanitizer. But eased restrictions have come with consequences.

by Isabella Simonetti
Getty Images

Toxic chemicals and odd smells have plagued some new hand sanitizers, but the demand isn’t going anywhere.

Weeks before the pandemic shut down the country, Robin Christenson woke up in the middle of the night. Initial fears about the virus had started to materialize, and she was worried. Then she came across an article about how there was a shortage of hand sanitizer. Christenson, one of the owners of Blinking Owl, a craft distillery in California, saw an opportunity for her businesses to grow.

“So the next day, I ran to work and I sat down with my head distiller and I said, ‘Can we make hand sanitizer?’” Christenson said.

In March, Americans panicked. They rushed to grocery stores, stockpiling everything from toilet paper to baking yeast, hoping to soothe their anxieties and prepare for the unforeseeable future. Hand sanitizer was one of the most in-demand items, with sales spiking 1,400 percent as early as January. While the Food and Drug Administration has said that hand-washing with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of infection, the disinfectant quickly became “something of a Holy Grail,” prompting worldwide shortages.

Amid the growing demand for hand sanitizer, the FDA waived certain regulations for its production, paving a new way for the industry by allowing nontraditional manufacturers like distilleries and perfumers to produce their own sanitizers. For some business owners, that has meant a fast-growing new revenue stream.

But the eased restrictions have also come with complications — just as states across the country are reopening, creating fresh need for sanitation. Although nowhere near the peaks of March, discussion around hand sanitizer is once again in the news, particularly around strange smells, faked products, and recalls.

“They pinky-promised to follow the rules, but guess what? Some of them didn’t follow the rules,” said US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) consumer watchdog Teresa Murray of new hand sanitizer manufacturers.

Those rules include what can be put into the formula. Some manufacturers have added methanol to their hand sanitizer formulas, which is toxic if it is absorbed through the skin and deadly if swallowed: “Methanol exposure can result in nausea, vomiting, headache, blurred vision, permanent blindness, seizures, coma, permanent damage to the nervous system, or death,” said an FDA press release. “Although people using these products on their hands are at risk for methanol poisoning, young children who ingest these products and adolescents and adults who drink these products as an alcohol (ethanol) substitute are most at risk.”

In Arizona, four people died and 26 were hospitalized after drinking hand sanitizer that contained methanol as an alcohol substitute. The FDA has now listed 87 potentially toxic hand sanitizers.

“There is some irony here that you’re using hand sanitizer to try and be safer, and in some cases, it can actually be making you sick,” Murray said. The US PIRG is advising people to stick with brand-name hand sanitizers in order to avoid contamination, or choose brands that manufacture other hygiene products like shampoo. Murray also suggested avoiding discount stores.

There have also been complaints about odd-smelling hand sanitizers (due to lack of carbon filtration), excessive stickiness, and false claims by manufacturers. The FDA has accused one Iowa-based hand sanitizer company of promising that its sanitizer could “mitigate, prevent, treat, diagnose, or cure COVID-19.”

“If the FDA doesn’t get a tighter grip on this going forward as things reopen, we could end up seeing many more problems,” Murray said.

Many of the toxic sanitizers on the FDA’s do-not-use list are manufactured outside the US, largely in Mexico. But recently, a hand sanitizer made by a Tennessee distillery was labeled toxic.

While hand sanitizers that contain methanol have become an increasing problem since the FDA’s restrictions were eased and new players entered the market, there are many businesses and distillers committed to producing safe and usable hand sanitizers.

Linda Evans O’Connor, VP and chief of staff for Lachman Consultant Services, has received an uptick in calls from businesses looking to get into the hand sanitizer industry, after Lachman released a condensed version of the FDA’s guidelines for production in layman’s terms.

“We saw sort of a progression from these companies saying, ‘Hey we want to do this just to help us get through Covid and just under the emergency use authorization,’” she said. Now she’s hearing that these same companies want to stay in the hand sanitizer business “because this isn’t something that’s going away.”

Christenson conducted thorough research and followed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) formula in order to safely produce hand sanitizer at her distillery. She also received help from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ online educational resources.

“We continue to supply large, large volumes of hand sanitizer, more than we ever dreamed we would continue to make,” she said. “It doesn’t show any signs of falling for us.”

Owner of Black Momma Vodka Vanessa Braxton has also started making hand sanitizer during the pandemic: “I never thought I would make hand sanitizer. That was never in my view until the pandemic,” she said.

Braxton’s company has a loyal customer base, with more than 60,000 online shoppers. She initially started making hand sanitizer after the American Distilling Institute requested she help supply the government and local community. Since then, Braxton has been closely following the WHO’s formula and is now registered with the FDA. She has also made it a priority to employ people in her local community and manufacture all of her products in the US.

“A lot of companies are making hand sanitizer but they’re not registering or getting a permit from the FDA to do it,” she said. “That’s how you make sure, too, that you’re providing a safe product.”

Since Black Momma Vodka has started producing hand sanitizer, the demand has skyrocketed. Braxton is now in the process of expanding her hand sanitizer line to include new scents like lavender, peach tree, sage, and lemon.

“We’re selling hand sanitizers night and day,” she said. “I’ve learned the industry and I’m now perfecting the formula and doing research.”

It is no secret that the expansion of the hand sanitizer industry has come with dangers. But it has also presented entrepreneurs with a new opportunity for growth at a time when many businesses are struggling to get by.

“I think that some of these recalls are going to weed out some of the players in the industry that are not conforming, and that the ones that are truly wanting to make the product according to the guidance are going to succeed,” O’Connor said.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

05 Aug 11:30

Electricity sources by state

by Nathan Yau

With Joe Biden calling for 100% clean electricity, John Muyskens and Juliet Eilperin for The Washington Post looked at where states are at now in terms of electricity generation.

The variable width bar chart above uses a column for each state. Clean electricity stacks on the top and fossil fuels stack on the bottom, each representing a percentage of total generation. Column width represents total electricity for each state.

It reminds me of the spending graphic by Interactive Things in 2010. I think variable width is about to be a thing again.

Tags: carbon, electricty, Washington Post

04 Aug 20:46

From The Stupid To The Bizarre: Trump Demands That His Government Should Take A 'Substantial' Cut Of TikTok's Purchase Fee

by Mike Masnick

The whole TikTok story keeps getting dumber. While we still believe that the weird moral panic about TikTok is overblown and Trump's threat to ban the company from the US over the weekend is crazy and unconstitutional, people are still taking things seriously. On Friday evening Trump said that he planned to issue an executive order banning the company (which is not quite how any of this works). He didn't actually do this. He also said he was against an American company like Microsoft buying TikTok, which apparently put the ongoing acquisition talks on hold.

Instead, Microsoft had to call up the President and grovel before him, before he apparently told the company it had until September 15th to work out a deal, and if no deal was made by then, he'd again "ban" TikTok (again, an almost certainly unconstitutional move that would not work). Still, it would be a mess, and I'm sure TikTok and ByteDance (the company's current owner) knows that it's probably best to take what it can get from Microsoft while it can. Of course, Microsoft also knows that it's in a good position because ByteDance has a ticking time bomb on its hands, and the value of TikTok could decrease drastically on September 15th if no deal is made. Even if a ban is unconstitutional, fighting it will take time and money.

Also, it's not clear if there would be much competition for TikTok from anyone other than Microsoft. I mean, Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg would love to buy it, but pretty much everyone knows that there's no way in hell that would get approved by the Justice Department. Even if Facebook weren't already facing a shit ton of antitrust scrutiny from Congress, the FTC, and state Attorneys General, the Bill Barr DOJ has made it clear that it will abuse antitrust to hurt companies Trump is mad at. And contrary to some conspiracy theories, Trump and friends still insist that Facebook is "biased" against them (it's not). So that wipes out most of the large internet companies that would actually have the capital to buy TikTok. There could be a surprise buyer, but it remains a fairly limited market, at best.

Still, things went from just stupid to downright bizarre on Monday when President Trump announced that he thought most of the money from a TikTok acquisition should go to the US Treasury:

"The United States should get a very large percentage of that price, because we're making it possible," Mr Trump said.

"It would come from the sale, which nobody else would be thinking about but me, but that's the way I think, and I think it's very fair," he added.

This is dumb on so many levels. First of all, people have been discussing the possibility of ByteDance having to sell TikTok to get away from questions about its Chinese ownership since long before Trump ever heard of TikTok. So the idea that it's only because of him is just yet another one of his narcissistic fever dreams. Second, you're not "making it possible" any more that the local organized crime fixer "makes it possible" for your restaurant to not burn down if you pay up your protection money. That's called extortion and it's not the kind of thing that the President should be advocating for. Third, it's incredibly stupid because even just saying that gives the Chinese government a ton of ammunition, as they started deploying almost immediately:

The state-run China Daily newspaper said on Tuesday that Beijing would not accept the "theft" of a Chinese technology company.

It also warned in an editorial that China had "plenty of ways to respond if the administration carries out its planned smash and grab".

Considering how much US officials have been whining and screaming about supposed Chinese attempts to "steal American intellectual property," giving the Chinese government a talking point to argue that the US government "does the same thing" is just a huge diplomatic stupidity.

Everything about this story is ridiculous, but it's 2020, and you always know that President Trump can take a stupid story and make it stupider.

04 Aug 20:44

Twitter About To Be Hit With A ~$250 Million Fine For Using Your Two Factor Authentication Phone Numbers/Emails For Marketing

by Mike Masnick

There are many things that big internet companies do that the media have made out to be scandals that aren't -- but one misuse of data that I think received too little attention was how both Facebook and later Twitter were caught using the phone numbers people gave it for two factor authentication, and later used them for notification/marketing purposes.

In case you're somehow unaware, two-factor authentication is how you should protect your most important accounts. I know many people are too lazy to set it up, but please do so. It's not perfect (Twitter's recent big hack routed around 2FA protections), but it is many times better than just relying on a username and password. In the early days of 2FA, one common way to implement it was to use text messaging as the second factor. That is, when you tried to login on a new machine (or after a certain interval of time), the service would have to text you a code that you would need to enter to prove that you were you.

Over time, people realized that this method was less secure. Many hacks involved people "SIM swapping" (using social engineering to have your phone number ported over to them), and then getting the 2FA code sent to the hacker. These days, good 2FA usually involves using an authenticator app, like Google Authenticator or Twilio's Authy or even better a physical key such as the Yubikey or Google's Titan Key. However, many services and users have stuck with text messaging for 2FA because it's the least complex for users -- and the issue with any security practice is that if it's not user-friendly, no one will use it, and that doesn't do any good either.

But using phone numbers given for 2FA purposes for notifications or marketing is really bad. First of all, it undermines trust -- which is the last thing you want to do when dealing with a security mechanism. People handed over these phone numbers/emails for a very specific and delineated reason: to better protect their account. To then share that phone number or email with the marketing team is a massive violation in trust. And it serves to undermine the entire concept of two factor authentication, in that many users will become less willing to make use of 2FA, fearing how the numbers might be abused.

As we noted when Facebook received the mammoth $5 billion fine from the FTC a year ago, while the media focused almost entirely on the Cambridge Analytica situation as the reason for the fine, if you actually read the FTC's settlement documents, it was other things that really caused the FTC to move, including Facebook's use of 2FA phone numbers for marketing. We were glad that Facebook got punished for that.

And now it's Twitter's turn. Twitter has revealed that the FTC is preparing to fine the company $150 million to $250 million for this practice -- noting that it violated the terms of an earlier consent decree with the FTC in 2011, where the company promised not to mislead users about how it handled personal information. Yet, for years, Twitter used the phone numbers and emails provided for 2FA to help target ads (basically using the phone number/email as an identifier for targeting).

There's no explanation for this other than really bad handling of data at Twitter, and the company should be punished for it. There are many things I think Twitter gets unfairly blamed for, but a practice like this is both bad and dangerous, and I'm all for large fines from the FTC to convince companies to never do this kind of thing again.

04 Aug 17:46

“They are dying. That’s true. It is what it is.” Trump’s Axios interview was a disaster.

by Aaron Rupar
President Trump sitting across from his interviewer and showing him a piece of paper. Axios’s Jonathan Swan interviewing President Donald Trump. | Axios/HBO

Jonathan Swan just put on a clinic on how to interview Trump.

President Donald Trump’s interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios began with him telling a dizzying string of lies about his coronavirus response and the state of the pandemic in the country. It ended with Trump making the death of civil rights leader John Lewis about himself. It didn’t go any better in between.

For the second time in a month, Trump’s attempt to sit down for an interview with a journalist willing to challenge him ended in disaster. Over the course of 37 minutes, Swan repeatedly exposed Trump’s inability to respond to the most basic of follow-up questions.

Trump’s difficulty with push-back is often concealed when he answers questions beside a loud helicopter or in the friendly confines of Sean Hannity’s show. But the Swan interview, which came out just two weeks after Trump’s similarly disastrous performance on Chris Wallace’s show, highlighted the degree to which Trump is unable to defend his record in the face of even mildly challenging questions.

Trump’s coronavirus comments continue to be an embarrassment

Perhaps the most terrifying part of the interview came early on when Swan peppered Trump with a string of questions about why he isn’t doing more to fight the coronavirus and why the virus has hit the US so much harder than other comparable countries.

Asked how he can say the pandemic is under control when roughly 1,000 Americans are dying from Covid-19 each day, Trump said, remarkably, that “it is what it is.”

“They are dying. That’s true. It is what it is. ... It’s under control as much as you can control it.”

On the topic of America’s struggles with coronavirus testing, including long wait times for test results that render testing almost worthless, Trump resorted to making stuff up.

“There are those that say you can test too much. You know that?” Trump said at one point.

“Who says that?” Swan responded.

“Read the manuals. Read the books,” answered Trump.

“What books?” Swan challenged, but no answer was forthcoming. Instead, Trump said that “when I took over we didn’t even have a test” — as if the Obama administration was supposed to develop a test for a virus that didn’t exist until nearly three years after Trump’s inauguration.

A few minutes later, just as he did on Wallace’s show, Trump waved around pieces of paper with charts and graphs in an unconvincing effort to make it seem as though the US coronavirus death toll of more than 150,000 isn’t as bad as it seems.

“Right here, the United States is lowest in ... numerous categories ... ah, we’re lower than the world,” Trump stammered, which prompted Swan to respond, incredulously, “lower than the world? In what?”

“Oh, you’re doing death as a proportion of cases,” Swan continued. “I’m talking about death as a proportion of population. That’s where the US is really bad. Much worse than South Korea, Germany, etc. ... Look at South Korea: 50 million population, 300 deaths.”

Trump responded by suggesting South Korea is faking its numbers. But when Swan challenged him on that point, Trump quickly changed the topic back to his pieces of paper.

“Here’s one right here. You take the number of cases. No, look. We’re last. Meaning we’re first,” Trump said.

“I mean, 1,000 Americans die a day,” Swan responded. “If hospital rates were going down and deaths were going down, I’d say terrific, you deserve to be praised for testing. But they’re all going up!

Watch the exchange:

In the minutes that followed, Trump failed to explain the contradiction between his claims about being a voracious consumer of intelligence reports and that he was never informed about intelligence that Russia was offering bounties for US troops in Afghanistan that was reportedly in said briefs. “I read a lot. I comprehend extraordinarily well. Probably better than anybody you’ve interviewed in a long time,” the president claimed.

He also revealed total confusion about the difference between absentee and mail-in voting, struggled to explain why he recently extended his well-wishes to accused sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell (“Yeah, I wish her well. I’d wish you well, I’d wish a lot of people well. Good luck.”), and dismissed video footage of federal law enforcement officials using a baton to beat a Navy veteran who was protesting in Portland.

“I think that actually, antifa should be investigated, not the law enforcement,” Trump said.

Trump’s race relations remarks pour fuel on the fire

But perhaps Trump’s most tone-deaf remarks were reserved for the end when Swan asked him a string of questions about racial inequalities and his reaction to the death of John Lewis.

Presented with a statistic that succinctly illustrates systemic racism in the country — “Why do you think Black men are two and half times more likely to be killed by police than white men?” Swan asked — Trump dodged with an equivalency.

“I do know this: that police have killed many white people also,” he said.

After Trump claimed he’s done “more for the Black community than anybody with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, whether you like it or not,” Swan asked him: “You believe you did more than Lyndon Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act?”

“How has it worked out?” Trump responded. “If you take a look at what Lyndon Johnson did. How has it worked out?”

The interview closed with what should’ve been a softball — “How do you think history will remember John Lewis?” Swan asked. But instead of paying lip service to Lewis’s record as a Civil Rights icon, Trump denigrated him for the pettiest of reasons.

“I really don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration,” Trump said.

“Taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive, what he’s done for this country?” Swan followed up.

“He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights. But there were many others also,” Trump demurred.

The interview was recorded last Tuesday and aired Monday evening on Axios’s HBO show. In a sign of how it went, Trump — who regularly promotes softball interviews he does with the Hannitys of the world in the hope of getting as many people as possible to tune in — didn’t mention it on Twitter or elsewhere.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

04 Aug 17:41

Google Music shutdown starts this month, music deleted in December

by Ron Amadeo
Logo for Google Play Music.

Enlarge / Please don't hurt our music collections, Google. (credit: Google Play Music)

Google Play Music has been given the death sentence by Google, and today the company has announced a bit more detail about how its execution will be carried out. The main message from today's blog post is "back up your music now," as Google says it will wipe out all Google Music collections in December 2020.

We've known for a while that the shutdown would be sometime in 2020, but for most regions, Google has now narrowed it down to "October." Here's the full timeline:

  • Late August—Users will no longer be able to upload or download music through Music Manager. Pre-orders and purchases will be shut down.
  • September—Streaming shuts down for users in New Zealand and South Africa.
  • October—Global streaming shutdown. The Google Music app and website will cease to be.
  • December—Music collections get deleted.

At the time of the streaming shutdown, the app will have been showing shutdown messages for about five months. If a user has somehow missed all of those, two months with no streaming at all will hopefully be enough to get them to research what happened to Google Music.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

04 Aug 10:59

Days After FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly Suggests Trump's Section 230 Exec Order Is Unconstitutional... His Renomination To The FCC Is Withdrawn

by Mike Masnick

Earlier today we wrote about how Ajit Pai was pushing ahead with the Commerce Department's silly FCC petition regarding a re-interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. We noted that it wouldn't actually be that hard to just say that the whole thing is unconstitutional and outside of the FCC's authority (which it is). Some people have pushed back on us saying that if Pai didn't do this, Trump would fire him and promote some Trump stan to push through whatever unconstitutional nonsense is wanted.

Well, now at least there's some evidence to suggest that Trump also views the FCC -- a supposedly "independent" agency -- as his personal speech police. Of the Republican Commissioners, Brendan Carr has been quite vocal in his Trump boot-licking, especially with regards to Section 230. He's been almost gleeful in his pronouncements about how evil "big tech" is for "censoring conservatives," and how much he wants to chip away at Section 230. Pai has been pretty much silent on the issue until the announcement today. But the other Republican Commissioner, Mike O'Rielly, has at least suggested that he recognizes the Trump executive order is garbage. Six weeks ago he said he hadn't done his homework yet, but suggested he didn't think Congress had given the FCC any authority on this matter (he's right).

Just last week, during a speech, he made it pretty clear where he stood on this issue. While first saying he wasn't necessarily referencing the Trump executive order, he said the following:

Today, I would like to address a particularly ominous development in this space. To be clear, the following critique is not in any way directed toward President Trump or those in the White House, who are fully within their rights to call for the review of any federal statute's application, the result of which would be subject to applicable statutory and constitutional guardrails. Rather, I am very troubled by certain opportunists elsewhere who claim to be the First Amendment’s biggest heroes but only come to its defense when convenient and constantly shift its meaning to fit their current political objectives. The inconsistencies and contradictions presented by such false prophets would make James Madison’s head spin, were he alive to witness them.

The First Amendment protects us from limits on speech imposed by the government—not private actors—and we should all reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way. Like it or not, the First Amendment’s protections apply to corporate entities, especially when they engage in editorial decision making. I shudder to think of a day in which the Fairness Doctrine could be reincarnated for the Internet, especially at the ironic behest of so-called free speech “defenders.” It is time to stop allowing purveyors of First Amendment gibberish to claim they support more speech, when their actions make clear that they would actually curtail it through government action. These individuals demean and denigrate the values of our Constitution and must be held accountable for their doublespeak and dishonesty. This institution and its members have long been unwavering in defending the First Amendment, and it is the duty of each of us to continue to uphold this precious protection.

To be clear: I agree 100% with that statement, and am glad that O'Rielly was willing to stand up on principle to defend it.

And then, today, it was announced that the White House is pulling his renomination to the FCC. In other words, the White House is being a petty asshole, again, and firing anyone for not being in lockstep with the President's ridiculous unconstitutional whims.

There was some talk last week about how Senator James Inhofe's office was blocking O'Rielly's renomination over a different issue: the approval of L-Band spectrum for use by Ligado (formerly LightSquared). A variety of government organizations had opposed the use of this spectrum, fearing that it might interfere with GPS systems. However, the Ligado deal was unanimously approved by all five commissioners, so it's difficult to see why O'Rielly would be singled out, other than his nomination was up. The Inhofe/Ligado thing feels like a smokescreen for the 230 issue.

The question now is whether or not O'Rielly will serve out his term, or if he'll leave now that his renomination is not being considered. One hopes that he'll at least stick it out long enough to vote down the Petition on 230. Even if he did leave, it's unclear if a new Commissioner would get through any confirmation process prior to the election. Either way, at least it's nice to see one Republican Commissioner willing to stand up to Trump. We've criticized O'Rielly plenty of times in the past, but at least he's not taking the path of Carr (and even Pai) in dealing with this nonsense.

04 Aug 06:01

Five Years Later, Team Solves Puzzles In Women In Tech Book

by Mike Masnick

When we released our CIA: Collect It All card game based on a declassified CIA training card game, we had included a fun little Easter egg in there, with help from Jon Callas, who helped create modern day encryption. So far, I believe a grand total of... two people have found it, solved it, and told me about it (though it's possible many more have done so). That was neat, but we had nothing to give them beyond the satisfaction of having solved the puzzle. It seems that others have gone much, much farther with this idea.

Five years ago, Tarah Wheeler put together a big Kickstarter for the book Women in Tech, with advice/ideas/thoughts/stories from a variety of successful women in the tech field.

Five years after publishing that book, Wheeler has now revealed that she flooded the book with hidden puzzles, and while releasing the book itself was a massively difficult project, the fact that a bunch of people found and worked on the puzzles was part of what made it all worth it:

I hated this fucking book. I hated it while I was writing it. I didn’t think that would happen. But I did....

And yet...

There was a secret in that book. It’s a secret that I’ve kept for half a decade, and while I’ve loved the wonderful messages and notes of support from people who’ve benefitted from this work, the puzzles I hid in it are the only unmitigated, unsoured, pure joy I’ve experienced in creating this Frankenstein’s Creature of a book.

I filled it with puzzles. I plastered it with puzzles. I was filled with anticipation at the thought that someday, people would see it.

Then some people noticed the codes and puzzles. A few people tried to solve them. Teams formed on Reddit and Twitter and Discord. And one small crew of four people finally journeyed to the end of the epic. And that’s how they won the secret buried treasure of pounds of precious silver.

The link above has some examples of the hidden puzzles, but here's just one:

Tarah then worked with Jon Callas (a familiar name!) to create amazing cipher wheels out of silver. You can see the wheels demonstrated in a video that Tarah put up recently:

Even better, she put up details on how to make your own cipher wheels, including 3D printing files to make your own as well at Github. This is a very cool project that, along with everything else that's fun about it, is a neat way to demonstrate how encryption works and why it's so important.

03 Aug 11:05

Pokémon GO Dragon Week Event Guide

by Zeroghan

Pokémon GO Dragon Week is an in-game event that runs from Friday 31, 2020 at 1 PM to Friday, August 7, 2020, at 1 PM PDT (GMT-7). The event is a part of the Pokémon GO Ultra Unlock 2020 series of events.

The event features increased Dragon type spawns in the wild, special 7 km eggs, exclusive Field Research and a timed weekly Special Research quest line that can be completed during the event.

Shiny Deino, Zweilous and Hydreigon are released as a part of this event.


Dragon Week Event Infographics
1 of 3
Dragon Week Event Overview
Dragon Week Event Overview
Dragon Week Research Tasks and Rewards
Dragon Week Research Tasks and Rewards
Rayquaza Counters
Rayquaza Counters

7 km Eggs

The following Pokémon will be hatching from 7 km eggs collected during this event:

Dragon Week 7 km eggs
Pokemon GO HorseaHorsea Pokemon GO DratiniDratini Pokemon GO TrapinchTrapinch
Pokemon GO SwabluSwablu Pokemon GO BagonBagon Pokemon GO GibleGible
Pokemon GO DeinoDeino

Field Research

Dragon Week Field Research
Task Reward
Make an Excellent Throw Pokemon GO BagonBagon
Win a raid Pokemon GO DratiniDratini
Catch a Dragon-type Pokémon 2 Golden Razz
Catch 3 Dragon-type Pokémon 1 Rare Candy

Raid Bosses

Dragon Week Raid Bosses
Tier 1
Pokemon GO TreeckoTreecko Pokemon GO SwabluSwablu
Pokemon GO SnivySnivy Pokemon GO DratiniDratini
Tier 2
Pokemon GO GibleGible Pokemon GO CroconawCroconaw
Pokemon GO Exeggutor (Alola)Exeggutor (Alola) Pokemon GO SneaselSneasel
Tier 3
Pokemon GO PiloswinePiloswine Pokemon GO VibravaVibrava
Pokemon GO ArbokArbok Pokemon GO SeadraSeadra
Tier 4
Pokemon GO WalreinWalrein Pokemon GO CharizardCharizard
Pokemon GO DragoniteDragonite Pokemon GO SalamenceSalamence
Tier 5
Pokemon GO RayquazaRayquaza

Timed Research Tasks and Rewards

Dragon Week Timed Research will run from Friday 31, 2020 at 1 PM to Friday, August 7, 2020, at 1 PM PDT (GMT-7).

Dragon Week Research Tasks and Rewards
Dragon Week Research Tasks and Rewards

Step 1 of 5

  • Power Up Pokemon 5 times (3 Super Potion)
  • Make 5 Nice Throws (500 XP)
  • Catch 3 Dragon-type Pokemon (5 Poke Ball)

Rewards 500 Stardust, 1 Silver Pinap Berry and Dratini encounter

Pokemon GO DratiniDratini

Step 2 of 5

  • Evolve 3 Pokemon (3 Revive)
  • Make 7 Great Throws (500 XP)
  • Catch 5 Dragon-type Pokemon (7 PokeBall)

Rewards 500 Stardust, 1 Silver Pinap Berry and Bagon encounter

Pokemon GO BagonBagon

Step 3 of 5

  • Win a Raid (1 Fast TM)
  • Make an Excellent Throw (1000 XP)
  • Catch 7 Dragon-type Pokemon (5 Great Ball)

Rewards 500 Stardust, 1 Silver Pinap Berry and Deino encounter

Pokemon GO DeinoDeino

Step 4 of 5

  • Defeat 3 Team Go Rocket Grunts (1 Dragon Scale)
  • Make 3 Excellent Throws (1500 XP)
  • Catch 9 different Species of Pokemon (7 GreatBall)

Rewards 1,000 Stardust, 1 Silver Pinap Berry and Alolan Exeggutor encounter

Pokemon GO Exeggutor (Alola)Exeggutor (Alola)

Step 5 of 5

  • Claim Reward (2500 XP)
  • Claim Reward (2500 XP)
  • Claim Reward (2500 XP)

Rewards 1,000 Stardust, 1 Silver Pinap Berry and Deino encounter

Pokemon GO DeinoDeino

The post Pokémon GO Dragon Week Event Guide appeared first on Pokemon GO Hub.

01 Aug 19:34

The US ambassador to Brazil reportedly asked Brazilian officials to help Trump’s reelection

by Anya van Wagtendonk
Chapman, in glasses, wearing a dark suit, blue tie, and white Panama hat, descends a flight of stairs, a crowd of diplomats and officials behind him. US ambassador Todd Chapman exits a 2018 meeting in Ecuador. | Dolores Ochoa/AP

Brazilian news reports say the ambassador asked for a “favor.” Democrats are demanding answers.

The Trump administration has been accused of attempting to pressure another foreign country into helping Trump’s reelection prospects, according to a letter from the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

That letter cites Brazilian news articles that report US Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman pressured members of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to lower ethanol tariffs in order to support President Donald Trump’s reelection efforts.

In the letter, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Eliot Engel demands Chapman explain an article in which the ambassador is said to have asked for the tariffs to be lowered as a “favor” from the Brazilian government to the Trump reelection campaign.

“Iowa is the largest ethanol producer in the United States…and could be a key player in Trump’s election,” an article in the Brazilian newspaper O Globo reads, according to the letter. “Hence the importance – according to Chapman – for the Bolsonaro government to do the U.S. a favor.”

Beyond the report in O Globo, the New York Times notes, another Brazilian outlet, Estadão, published a similar story based on its own reporting, with its journalists finding that Chapman had made the request, and was rebuffed by government officials.

Alceu Moreira, a Brazilian congressman, also told the Times that Chapman “had made repeated references to the electoral calendar during a recent meeting the two had about ethanol.”

Engel has called for Chapman to respond to the reports by August 4, and for him to provide “any and all documents referring or related to any discussions” with Brazilian officials.

If the reports are accurate, the letter states, Chapman’s actions could be in violation of the Hatch Act, which prevents federal employees from engaging in certain political activities, such as partisan campaigning for candidates.

A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that Chapman’s efforts were part of a policy of pushing for lower tariffs in general, not narrowly focused on supporting an incumbent presidential campaign.

“Allegations suggesting that Ambassador Chapman has asked Brazilians to support a specific U.S. candidate are false,” the statement reads. “The United States has long been focused on reducing tariff barriers and will continue do so.”

Foreign interference marred the 2016 election. Requests for interference led to impeachment.

The reports are also of concern because of how closely they echo the request that led to Trump’s impeachment.

Last July, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” during a phone call in which he asked the leader to look into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of then-candidate, now presumed Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In that call, Trump appeared to condition military aid badly needed by Ukraine on Zelensky’s willingness to search for information that might be used to discredit Biden.

A congressional investigation into that call revealed the ways the Trump administration used traditional diplomatic channels — most notably the office of the US ambassador to the European Union — to forward that goal.

It isn’t clear whether Trump was involved in Chapman’s reported pressure campaign about ethanol, but as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote during 2019’s impeachment hearings, the testimony of another of Trump’s ambassadors — former US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland — showed a willingness on Trump’s part “to use US foreign policy as a tool to cement his own hold on power.”

And that has Trump critics concerned about the Brazilian reports, with Engel warning Chapman in his letter, “Elections in the United States are for the American people and the American people only to decide.”

In delivering that warning, the letter explicitly links Chapman’s reported campaign to the 2016 election, the outcome of which foreign governments repeatedly attempted to sway, according to the results of a Senate investigation.

“Given the events of 2016, it is all the more important for U.S. ambassadors serving our country abroad to not insert themselves into U.S. elections or encourage foreign government officials from any branch of government to do so,” the letter reads.

This warning follows intelligence reports that find Russia has actively worked to disrupt November’s elections — as well as the Democratic presidential primary. But politicians and experts have warned that the US is not as prepared as it ought to be to combat such interference, leaving it vulnerable to meddling attempts not just by adversaries, but by also by Americans who, as Engel writes, “should know better.”

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

01 Aug 13:59

MacKenzie Scott is donating her billions much faster than her ex Jeff Bezos

by Kelsey Piper
MacKenzie Scott (then Bezos) at an awards ceremony in 2018. | Jörg Carstensen/picture alliance via Getty Images

In the past year, she’s given away $1.7 billion.

A year ago, Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos set records with the world’s biggest divorce settlement. On July 28, MacKenzie Bezos (now MacKenzie Scott) announced that she’s spent the time since aiming to set a much more inspiring record — for how fast she can give the money away.

When the couple divorced in 2019, they were splitting the largest personal fortune in history, estimated at the time at about $145 billion. The couple announced a settlement in April 2019 that left Jeff Bezos 75 percent of his Amazon fortune, while Scott departed the marriage with $35 billion, making her at the time of the announcement the third-richest woman in the world (a recent Forbes ranking now has her at fourth).

Right away, Scott indicated that her approach to philanthropy would be profoundly different from the approach she and Bezos had used as a couple. Jeff Bezos’s forays into philanthropy have been limited. While the wealthiest man in the world, he has not signed the Giving Pledge to eventually donate a significant share of his wealth, and he’s donated a far smaller percentage of it than other ultra-wealthy figures like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, or Mike Bloomberg. When he has given, I’ve criticized his approach for a lack of rigor and clarity.

One month after the divorce, Scott signed the Giving Pledge that Bezos never did. “I have a disproportionate amount of money to share,” she wrote in her pledge letter. “I won’t wait. And I will keep at it until the safe is empty.” And it seems like she’s been acting on that declaration.

MacKenzie Scott’s deeply unusual approach to philanthropy

A year later, she has published an update, and it’s an astonishing one. In the past year, she has donated $1.7 billion to 116 organizations working in areas of interest to her, from racial justice and LGBTQ equality to climate change and global health.

All the organizations listed are established nonprofits, selected, Scott says, for their leadership’s “track record of effective management and significant impact in their fields.” The largest area of grants — $586.7 million — went to organizations working on racial equity, an issue where awareness has grown quickly over the past few months amid protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. Other top priorities included economic mobility ($399.5 million), gender equity, public health, and global development (more on these below).

The total amount — $1.7 billion — is obviously just a fraction of her fortune, but it is deeply unusual for billionaires to give away that much money this quickly, especially without a preexisting organization to do grant research and vetting.

Her methods, too, are unusual. “It was a gift that just fell from the sky,” Jorge Valencia, executive director and CEO of one of those 116 organizations, the Point Foundation, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The organization, which offers scholarships to LGBTQ+ students, did not apply for a grant and had no connection to Scott.

And while it’s common for philanthropists to give grants that are restricted for a specific purpose, paid out over the course of several years or conditional on various benchmarks for grant success, Scott says she did none of that. “I gave each a contribution and encouraged them to spend it on whatever they believe best serves their efforts. Unless organization leadership requested otherwise, all commitments were paid up front and left unrestricted to provide them with maximum flexibility,” she wrote in her announcement.

“It’s an interesting contrast to the more technocratic giving of the tech billionaires,” Rob Reich, a Stanford philosopher who writes about the role of philanthropy in society, told me.

Another interesting contrast is the way Scott approached publicizing her giving. The announcement two years ago that Jeff Bezos planned to give $2 billion to education and homelessness charities attracted, Reich says, “fanfare with zero follow-up.” Almost two years later, the website for Bezos’s Day One Fund lists just under $200 million in grants, about 10 percent of the amount initially pledged. Half of the initial pledge was for education, and no progress in this area has been officially announced yet (though Bezos has posted updates on Instagram).

In 2020, Bezos announced on Instagram a planned $10 billion in grants to fight climate change through what he called the Bezos Earth Fund. The Bezos Earth Fund has no website. Bezos’s original Instagram post says that grants will start this summer, though they appear to have not yet started.

All this is not unusual (and it doesn’t suggest that Bezos won’t eventually meet his commitments; he has paid out other grants he’s made, including $100 million to Feeding America for coronavirus relief earlier this year). Typically, philanthropic announcements get widespread coverage even if they are substantially in advance of the actual disbursement of money. And in some cases, money is disbursed to donor-advised funds or other instruments, which means they may take even longer to reach recipients. There is nothing wrong with taking your time to make grants if that means the grants do more good — but it’s easy for delays to mean that givers enjoy all the positive publicity of a major grant long before anyone’s life is improved by it.

Scott, by announcing her gifts only after she’d already disbursed all the money, avoids that pitfall — and could offer a glimpse of a new model of how to give, one that is focused on moving money quickly, not attaching any requirements or conditions, and shifting the power dynamics of the philanthropy world.

Does this model of giving work?

Scott’s fast, massive disbursements and other recent experiments in quickly moving large sums of money to where they are needed, with much less review and fewer application steps than in traditional grantmaking, “weakens the case that giving away $1.7 billion is difficult,” Reich said. “There remains a question about whether it’s difficult to do well.”

Giving away money very quickly with a minimal process does have some disadvantages.

Many charitable interventions don’t work, and the differences between the best organizations and the average organizations can be quite large. It’s reasonable that many funders don’t want to take that chance.

But there’s a good argument that at least some funders should be happy to make lots of grants, many of which may disappoint them anyway. Vetting often adds lots of overhead, delays, and communication problems for charities; a faster process that gets money where it’s needed sooner can make a big difference. In some specific fields (say, scientific research), studies have shown that all the effort-intensive work to find the “best” grants is fairly arbitrary; researchers don’t agree with each other’s rankings at all. In a case like that, you might as well just get money out the door, with minimal vetting — as Scott has done.

And in some areas, like coronavirus relief, getting money to people quickly is really important. If it takes months to make a grant and more months for the money to arrive, it may be too late to help. Scott donated to GiveDirectly, a nonprofit that gives people cash, no strings attached, and which has dramatically expanded its operations this year in order to help people around the world deal with the coronavirus crisis.

Scott’s team reached out to GiveDirectly after having already done their research, GiveDirectly’s managing director Joe Huston told me. Very little staff time was tied up in making the donation happen. (The nonprofit tracks how many resources are expended per dollar raised and said that Scott’s gift was one of the lowest-scoring, on that metric, they could remember.) The money arrived in early June, and 95 percent of it was sent out to recipients within 10 days.

“The pandemic is giving donors experience in handing over the reins in philanthropy,” Huston told me, so that help can reach people as fast as it’s needed. “My hope is that when people are just looking to help, they’ll start with that in general.”

There are other pitfalls to trying to give away money quickly, though Scott avoided many of the biggest ones. Lots of donors making large gifts gravitate toward targets like Stanford, Harvard, or MIT — big research universities with well-staffed donor relations departments that can absorb enormous gifts. (“For the love of God, rich people, stop giving Ivy League colleges money,” my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote after one such mega-gift, and I agree.) Scott donated to several historically Black colleges and universities; in each case, her donation of $20 million to $40 million was the largest single donation in the school’s history.

The money will help ”lift the financial burden off of deserving students and help make ends meet so they can focus on graduating on time,” Howard University said in a statement. “This pure act of benevolence is clearly a game-changer and it could not have come at a better time,” Hampton president William R. Harvey told the HBCU Digest.

In general, picking organizations run by people affected firsthand by the injustices Scott targeted was a priority. “On this list, 91 percent of the racial-equity organizations are run by leaders of color, 100 percent of the LGBTQ+ equity organizations are run by LGBTQ+ leaders, and 83 percent of the gender-equity organizations are run by women, bringing lived experience to solutions for imbalanced social systems,” she wrote in her note announcing the gifts.

That fact might provide a useful lens for evaluating her donations. MacKenzie Scott does not know how to solve racial justice, women’s rights, or LGBTQ+ equality. She just happens to, unlike most of us, be in possession of $35 billion, and so she decided that if she gave much of that money to Black activists and LGBTQ+ activists and women’s activists, probably they would be better suited than she is to figure out how the money could be spent to solve those problems.

The same theme recurs in Scott’s letter and in nonprofits’ descriptions of her process. There wasn’t very much vetting because Scott does not particularly expect that she’s better at vetting than these organizations are. There weren’t restrictions on the grants because Scott does not particularly believe she’s more suited than the recipients to guess what restrictions would be useful. She is “trusting the leaders of the organizations chosen,” Reich told me, “with a very deliberate eye toward leaders with the lived experience of the work they’re doing.”

There’s something deeply inspiring about that. I am in favor of philanthropists putting in the work to identify the most effective approaches to social problems and direct their money with precision where it will do the most good, when they have the resources to do that. I think that work is often well worth the effort.

“There’s room for the bigger foundations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that kind of heavyweight model,” Huston told me when I asked whether more philanthropists should be imitating Scott. “But I’m glad there’s more examples, like [MacKenzie] Bezos, like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey,” where philanthropists make donation decisions quickly and trust the decision-making to others.

If you have $35 billion, that fact does not in itself make you qualified to figure out how to fix the world — and if you think that other people are more qualified, you might decide the best plan is to just shovel the money out the door so they can run with it. That seems to be MacKenzie Scott’s approach to philanthropy so far — and a society grappling with the role of billionaires in our world and in our giving should be watching.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter and we’ll send you a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling the world’s biggest challenges — and how to get better at doing good.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

01 Aug 11:25

How a $175 COVID-19 Test Led to $2,479 in Charges

by by Marshall Allen

by Marshall Allen

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up to receive our biggest stories as soon as they’re published.

This article is co-published with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan local newsroom that informs and engages with Texans. Sign up for The Brief weekly to get up to speed on their essential coverage of Texas issues.

As she waited for the results of her rapid COVID-19 test, Rachel de Cordova sat in her car and read through a stack of documents given to her by SignatureCare Emergency Center.

Without de Cordova leaving her car, the staff at the freestanding emergency room near her home in Houston had checked her blood pressure, pulse and temperature during the July 21 appointment. She had been suffering sinus stuffiness and a headache, so she handed them her insurance card to pay for the $175 rapid-response drive-thru test. Then they stuck a swab deep into her nasal cavity to obtain a specimen.

De Cordova is an attorney who specializes in civil litigation defense and maritime law. She cringes when she’s asked to sign away her rights and scrutinizes the fine print. The documents she had been given included disclosures required by recent laws in Texas that try to rein in the billing practices of stand-alone emergency centers like SignatureCare. One said that while the facility would submit its bill to insurance plans, it doesn’t have contractual relationships with them, meaning the care would be considered out-of-network. Patients are responsible for any charges not covered by their plan, it said, as well as any copayment, deductible or coinsurance.

The more she read, the more annoyed de Cordova became. SignatureCare charges a “facility fee” for treatment, the document said, ranging “between five hundred dollars and one hundred thousand dollars.” Another charge, the “observation fee,” could range from $1,000 to $100,000.

De Cordova didn’t think her fees for the test could rise into the six figures. But SignatureCare was giving itself leeway to charge almost any amount to her insurance plan — and she could be on the hook. She knew she couldn’t sign the document. But that created a problem: She still needed to get her test results.

Even in a public health emergency, what could be considered the first rule of American health care is still in effect: There is no set price. Medical providers often inflate their charges and then give discounts to insurance plans that sign contracts with them. Out-of-network insurers and their members are often left to pay the full tab or whatever discount they can negotiate after the fact.

A portion of the document given to Rachel de Cordova at SignatureCare highlighted by ProPublica describes fees for the “facility” and “observation” that could reach $100,000 each. Obtained by ProPublica

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, includes a provision that says insurers must pay for an out-of-network COVID-19 test at the price the testing facility lists on its website. But it sets no maximum for the cost of the tests. Insurance representatives told ProPublica that the charge for a COVID-19 test in Texas can range from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Health plans are generally waiving out-of-pocket costs for all related COVID-19 treatment, insurance representatives said. Some costs may be passed on to the patient, depending on their coverage and the circumstances.

As she waited, de Cordova realized she didn’t want to play insurance roulette. She changed her mind and decided she’d pay the $175 out-of-pocket for her test. But when the SignatureCare nurse came to collect the paperwork, de Cordova said the nurse told her, “You can’t do that. It’s insurance fraud for you to pay for our services once we know you have insurance.”

Dr. Hashibul Hannan, an emergency room physician, lab director and manager at SignatureCare, told ProPublica his facility is an emergency room that offers testing, not a typical testing site. He said de Cordova should have been allowed to pay the $175 cash price. The staff members were concerned about being accused of fraud because they had already entered her insurance information into the record, he said. So they didn’t want it to appear she was being double-billed. Hannan also said he regrets that she was upset by the disclosure forms that are now required under state law.

Unable to pay cash and unwilling to take a chance on the unknown cost, de Cordova decided to leave without getting the results of her COVID-19 test.

“I Would Have Signed Anything”

Later that day, de Cordova couldn’t get past what happened. She wondered what happened to patients who didn’t read the fine print before signing the packet.

Then she realized she and her husband, Hayan Charara, could investigate it themselves. In June, the couple’s 8-year-old son had attended a baseball tryout. They thought the kids would be socially distanced and that precautions would be taken. But then the coaches had crowded the players in a dugout, with no masks or social distancing, and a couple days later the boy said he wasn’t feeling well.

So just to be safe, on June 12, Charara took their son to the same SignatureCare, the Heights location, for a COVID-19 test. The line was so long they had to wait for hours, go home, come back and wait for hours again in their car in the 100-degree heat. Charara, a poet who teaches at the University of Houston, said he didn’t take a close look at the financial disclosure paperwork. De Cordova wasn’t with them. It had been 10 hours of waiting by the time the boy was tested, so “I would have signed anything,” he said. (The child tested negative.)

Charara, de Cordova and their children are covered by the Employees Retirement System of Texas, a taxpayer-funded benefit plan that covers about half a million people. They hadn’t received any notices about the charges for their son. So they contacted the SignatureCare billing department and asked for an itemized statement. The test charge was indeed $175. But the total balance, including the physician and facility fees associated with an emergency room visit, came to $2,479.

The facility fee was $1,784 and the physician fee $486.

The couple were dumbfounded. Their son’s vital signs had been checked but there had been no physical examination, they said. The interactions took less than five minutes total, and the child stayed in the car. “You’re getting a drive-thru test, and they’re pretending like they’re giving you emergency services,” de Cordova said.

The statement for de Cordova’s son’s evaluation and $175 COVID-19 test came to $2,479 after fees added by SignatureCare. Obtained by ProPublica

The SignatureCare charges shocked experts who study health care costs. Charging $2,479 for a drive-thru COVID-19 test is a “nauseating” example of profiteering during a pandemic, said Niall Brennan, president and CEO of the Health Care Cost Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies health care prices. “It’s one of the most egregious examples of giving the fox the keys to the henhouse I’ve ever seen and yet another example of the absurdity of U.S. health care pricing.

“Imagine a vendor in any other walk of life being allowed to bill a third party for whatever amount they wanted,” Brennan said.

Insurance companies in Texas typically pay between $100 and $300 for drive-thru COVID-19 tests, said Jamie Dudensing, CEO of the Texas Association of Health Plans. But the association’s members have seen hundreds of out-of-network COVID-19 test charges come in far higher, some in the thousands of dollars.

“There’s no excuse for that, especially in a public health crisis,” said Chris Callahan, spokesperson for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which likewise has seen high charges for COVID-19 tests from out-of-network providers.

The reimbursement rates negotiated between insurance companies and in-network providers are much lower, but they still vary, according to data provided by the nonprofit FAIR Health, which tracks spending by private insurers. For the same test billed by SignatureCare, an in-network insurer pays a median price of $23 in Utah and $75 in Wisconsin, according to FAIR Health estimates.

Texas is notorious for its high-priced out-of-network emergency bills and free-standing emergency departments. Some of the facilities appear to be using COVID-19 testing to draw in patients so their insurance plans can be charged for additional services, said Blake Hutson, associate state director for AARP Texas, the advocacy organization for older Americans. “It’s not a surprise they would be racking up the charges and adding on everything they can and billing the health plan,” he said.

In some cases, insurers do pay the exorbitant out-of-network charges, Hutson said, but they typically get reduced. In 2019, Texas lawmakers voted to ban billing patients in state-regulated insurance plans for charges not covered by their policy, Hutson said, which is known as “balance” or “surprise” billing. But consumers may still be responsible for any deductibles and other cost-sharing under their health plan. And the costs covered by the health plan get passed back to the consumers over time in the form of higher premiums, he said. “It’s all problematic for the cost of care,” Hutson said.

Hannan defended SignatureCare’s high out-of-network charges by blaming insurance companies for refusing to give what he considers to be fair in-network rates. The charges are a starting point for negotiating a fair deal from out-of-network insurance plans, he said. He described SignatureCare, which has 18 locations, as “small players. When it comes to negotiating with insurance companies, we have no luck.”

Was the Bill Accurate?

The medical record portrays the visit as an emergency and contains details that are not consistent with how Charara and de Cordova describe their son’s condition. The chief complaint in the record is “body fluid exposure,” and elsewhere it says “confirmed COVID exposure.”

But that’s not accurate, according to the parents. No one had coughed or sneezed on their son, and they knew of no one from the tryout who had tested positive for COVID-19, they said. The child’s temperature is registered in the record as 102.8, which is high. But Charara said that could have been caused by sitting in the Texas heat, waiting for the test.

Shelley Safian, a Florida health care coding expert who has written four books on medical billing, examined the bill and medical records of Charara and de Cordova’s son at ProPublica’s request. She said the medical records don’t justify the charges. SignatureCare billed the case as if the exam were an emergency that required an “expanded problem focused history” and “medical decision making of moderate complexity,” she said.

In order to qualify for reimbursement of an exam at that level, the encounter would need to include examining the affected organ system, Safian said. But the medical records do not document any check of the respiratory system, which would be indicated for suspected COVID-19.

Much of the medical record appeared to be cut and pasted from other electronic records, Safian said. “This is boilerplate B.S.,” she said, “and I don’t mean ‘bachelor of science.’”

Hannan, the SignatureCare doctor and manager, stands by the charges associated with the child’s COVID-19 test. The facility has to treat every case like a possible emergency, and that requires an examination, he said. He pointed out that the charges are in line with what other out-of-network providers would charge in the area, according to FAIR Health, though they are far higher than in-network prices.

A doctor’s examination may not be as hands-on during COVID-19, but, similar to a telemedicine visit, a lot can be examined visually, Hannan said. Hannan said the company he uses for coding said COVID-19 requires a higher level of care and vigilance because it’s an infectious disease.

In light of the questions raised by ProPublica and Safian, Hannan said he asked his billing company to audit the charges. Sharon Nicka, president and CEO of Nicka and Associates, the billing company used by SignatureCare, took issue with Safian’s assessment and said the billing codes used were justified by the medical record. She said the charges are high for a drive-thru test, but those are set by SignatureCare.

ProPublica identified several apparent errors and contradictions in the medical record and billing documentation. For example, the notes in the medical record alternatively refer to the boy as “symptomatic” and “asymptomatic.” The record also says the physical exam showed a skin wound that “was not red, swollen or tender,” but the child had no wound of any kind, the family said. And the billing documentation shows a charge for an antibody test when the medical record showed that the patient actually received a diagnostic test, which is something different.

In response to ProPublica’s questions, a SignatureCare medical director reviewed the record. The error about the “wound” may have been caused by a software template adding something that was not in the physician chart, the reviewer wrote. The facility now uses a different template. The charge for the antibody test is likely a billing error, as the physician had ordered the correct test, the reviewer wrote. “We will continue to update and improve our (electronic medical records),” the reviewer said.

Hannan stressed that SignatureCare is upfront with patients about the possible fees associated with its treatment, including the disclosure paperwork and explanations on its website. It’s an emergency room, he said, so patients should expect emergency room fees. Patients who do not have a medical emergency should not come, he said, though the ER allows patients to book appointments a day in advance for a COVID-19 test.

Dudensing, the chief executive of the Texas Association of Health Plans, said she’s heard Hannan’s contention before and it’s true that freestanding emergency rooms have a license that allows them to charge more. But she still believes that they handle many nonemergency cases and are forcing facility fees of thousands of dollars on them. “They’re hiding under the guise of emergency rooms when they’re really dressed-up urgent care,” she said.

Diana Kongevick, director of group benefits for the Employees Retirement System of Texas, said the health plan had only recently received the bill for the 8-year-old’s test. It hadn’t been processed, so she could not speak to it directly. But, in general, the health plan will pay 100% of the cost of the test, in this case $175, she said. The claim would be processed using out-of-network provisions, she said. So for the other charges, the patient may be responsible for paying in the range of $600, she estimated, for the out-of-network copay and deductibles. “This is a nonemergent patient self-referral to an out-of-network provider,” Kongevick said.

“Testing Should Be Free”

Even if the Employees Retirement System of Texas determines that Charara and de Cordova should pay $600 for their son’s test, SignatureCare will not be sending the family a bill, Hannan said. He said insured patients are not being sent bills for COVID-19 treatment beyond what their insurance companies cover.

De Cordova never did get her test results, and she didn’t seek a test elsewhere. She felt better later and now believes she had just been suffering from allergies. But what if it had turned out to be COVID-19, she wondered. Might she have gone on to infect others, she’s asked herself.

From a public health perspective, the haggling about out-of-network charges and payments puts patients in the middle, and it might discourage them from getting tested for COVID-19 during the pandemic, said Stuart Craig, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies health care costs. “It’s another part of the fragmentation of the health care system that makes patients’ lives miserable,” Craig said.

It’s especially frustrating, he said, because COVID-19 testing is so essential to making it safely through the pandemic. Craig said he believes there should be a nationally mandated price and government subsidies to make sure medical providers and manufacturers are motivated financially to provide tests. “Testing should be free,” Craig said. “In fact, we should probably be paying patients to get tested.”

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01 Aug 11:22

Update: The TikTok Clusterfuck: Trump To Order A Block, Microsoft Wants To Buy, And Competition Is Still There

by Mike Masnick

Update: Sooo... we already have a bunch of updates on this story. Trump has said he's banning TikTok entirely and is "against" allowing a US company to buy TikTok. Below is the original post, with only a slight clarification regarding Ben Thompson's thoughts on TikTok, which I didn't present very clearly in the original. Then, beneath the post I'll have more thoughts on Trump's comments.

There's been a panic over the last few weeks about TikTok, the rapidly growing social network that is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance (by way of history: ByteDance purchased a startup called in 2017, and rebranded it TikTok in 2018, and then it started growing like crazy). A few weeks ago, the Trump administration started suggesting it would ban TikTok, and a story was built up around the idea that TikTok was some sort of national security threat, despite very little evidence to support this. A separate narrative was simply that Trump was annoyed that TikTok kids made Trump look bad in Tulsa by reserving a bunch of tickets to his rally that they never intended to use.

Either way, it was announced today that the Trump administration was likely to order ByteDance to shed TikTok and immediately with that was the news that Microsoft was a likely buyer.

The whole thing is kind of silly. The most compelling argument I've seen for why the US should ban TikTok came from Ben Thompson at Stratechery, who more or less says (this is a very simplified version of his argument, so read the whole thing) that since China is engaged in a war to impose its ideology on the world, and that it will make use of TikTok and other services to effectively attack Western liberalism, it is effectively dangerous to allow it to operate in the west under Chinese ownership. He supports selling TikTok off to a American company, or barring that, banning the app in the West. I tend to lean the other way: to me, banning TikTok strikes me as effectively proving China's views on liberalism, and allowing them to claim hypocrisy on the west, and use these actions to justify its own actions.

On top of that, if the concern is about China, then the fact that most of our network and computer equipment is built in China would seem like maybe a larger concern? But beyond a weird, similar freakout about Huawei, no one seems to be taking any serious interest in that. And that doesn't get into the fact that US intelligence has leaned heavily on US internet companies to try to get access to global data -- meaning that there does seem to be a bit of US exceptionalism built into all of this: it's okay when we do it, but an affront if any other government might do the same thing...

Separately, this whole situation with TikTok and Microsoft demonstrates the pure silliness of the antitrust hearing in the House earlier this week. Note that there were claims that the four companies there represented "monopoly power." And yet, just days later, we're talking about how a recent entrant in the market, which has grown up quickly, and which Facebook certainly sees as a threat, is so powerful on the internet that it needs to be sold from its Chinese owners -- and the leading candidate to purchase it, Microsoft, is not even one of the "too powerful" companies who were on the panel.

If a new entrant can rise up so quickly to be a "threat" and then needs to be purchased by another giant... it certainly suggests that the internet market still remains pretty vibrant, and not at all locked down by a few monopolies.

Updated thoughts: So that's the original above. Now that Trump is saying he really is going to ban TikTok and is against its sale, there are multiple issues raised. Trump seems to think he can do this under his emergency economic powers (effectively declaring TikTok to be a national security issue -- the same "tool" he used to impose tariffs on China without Congressional approval). If he goes that route, there will be lawsuits -- and there will be significant Constitutional issues raised. The Supreme Court has in the past declared software speech, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (the case about whether or not the government could regulate video games and require age warnings). And, in the 2nd Circuit, a somewhat frustrating decision regarding the publishing of some code that would break DRM, Universal v. Corley, it is at least notable that the Court made a clear statement that software is protected under the 1st Amendment:

Communication does not lose constitutional protection as "speech" simply because it is expressed in the language of computer code. Mathematical formulae and musical scores are written in "code," i.e., symbolic notations not comprehensible to the uninitiated, and yet both are covered by the First Amendment. If someone [*446] chose to write a novel entirely in computer object code by using strings of 1's and 0's for each letter of each word, the resulting work would be no different for constitutional purposes than if it had been written in English. The "object code" version would be incomprehensible to readers outside the programming community (and tedious to read even for most within the community), but it would be no more incomprehensible than a work written in Sanskrit for those unversed in that language. The undisputed evidence reveals that even pure object code can be, and often is, read and understood by experienced programmers. And source code (in any of its various levels of complexity) can be read by many more. Ultimately, however, the ease with which a work is comprehended is irrelevant to the constitutional inquiry. If computer code is distinguishable from conventional speech for First Amendment purposes, it is not because it is written in an obscure language.

And, later:

Computer programs are not exempted from the category of First Amendment speech simply because their instructions require use of a computer. A recipe is no less "speech" because it calls for the use of an oven, and a musical score is no less "speech" because it specifies performance on an electric guitar. Arguably distinguishing computer programs from conventional language instructions is the fact that programs are executable on a computer. But the fact that a program has the capacity to direct the functioning of a computer does not mean that it lacks the additional capacity to convey information, and it is the conveying of information that renders instructions "speech" for purposes of the First Amendment.

There were other issues with that case, but it remains law in the 2nd Circuit. TikTok suing over being banned would present an interesting 1st Amendment issue at the very least.

As to whether or not Trump could block the sale to a US company -- ordinarily the answer to that should also be no, with a few caveats. However, as was recently revealed in Congress, the Bill Barr-lead DOJ appears to have no problem at all weaponizing its powers against companies the President is annoyed with -- meaning that the DOJ could trump up some ridiculous excuse for why TikTok cannot be sold to an American company, and it's possible a court would buy it.

On a related noted, it's also entirely possible that the President would try to lean on both Apple and Google to remove TikTok from their app stores. And while I'd like to believe both companies would push back -- the fact that there are realistically just those two bottlenecks to blocking TikTok entirely from the country, it could also get... interesting.

I get the feeling we'll be writing about all of this for quite some time.

01 Aug 03:04

Maryland Department of Labor announces 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefitsMaryland Department...

Maryland Department of Labor announces 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits

Maryland Department of Labor announces 13 weeks of extended unemployment benefits

01 Aug 03:03

Why the next coronavirus stimulus bill is still stalled in Congress

by Li Zhou
Casket Carrying John Lewis Departs Capitol Building For Atlanta Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senate Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speak at the Capitol. | Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images

Congress is still at an impasse as millions see a sharp drop in their unemployment benefits.

Enhanced unemployment insurance — a key lifeline for millions of workers during the Covid-19 pandemic — has now lapsed, with no clear indication of when it might be renewed.

And in a delay that’s surprising even for Congress, lawmakers’ talks over extending the weekly $600 boost in UI — and approving broader stimulus — remain stalled. As a result, nearly 32 million people are set to see a sharp drop in their UI benefits this week. And depending on the state, weekly UI support could be reduced by as much as 93 percent, CNBC reported July 30.

Congress is also planning to leave for August recess this Friday, putting a tight time frame on next steps. Whether lawmakers are able to reach an agreement by then depends on Democrats and Republicans working through their differences on the scope of the stimulus, as well as Senate Republicans addressing dissent within their own conference.

Thus far, Senate Republicans have been a major source of delays. While House Democrats passed another round of stimulus in May, for example, Senate Republicans didn’t even introduce a bill until last week. And even then, internal GOP fractures over the need for more funding have limited Republicans’ ability to present a united front, further muddling negotiations.

“We’re trying to get them to a coherent position,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said last July 29. “We don’t even know what their position is. One senator says one thing. One senator says another. The president says ‘this’ one day. The president says ‘that.’”

Late Thursday, July 30, the White House made a last-ditch attempt at approving a short-term extension of the UI program, which Democrats rebuffed as an attempt by Republicans to get out of doing something more comprehensive. Republicans now argue that Democrats are blocking progress on UI, while Democrats decry the maneuver as a way to avoid confronting the need for broader stimulus.

“They never have understood the gravity of it,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. Congressional lawmakers, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, are poised to continue negotiations in the coming days as they seek to find an agreement on UI, funding for states, and liability protections for businesses.

In the meantime, millions of people are left wondering what’s next.

How we got here

Republicans have been dragging their feet on stimulus for weeks.

Although Democrats approved the HEROES Act — their opening bid for the next package, which included a six-month extension of the $600 weekly UI expansion — more than 10 weeks ago, Republicans have long argued that the economy will recover on its own as states reopen.

I think conditions are definitely going to improve. We’ve seen the virus take down the best economy in the world, but it looks like it’s pretty resilient and starting to come back,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Politico in early June.

Because of this, Republicans weren’t interested in considering more stimulus until it became it impossible to ignore that state reopenings weren’t going as planned in July, due to a resurgence in coronavirus cases. Even then, members who were worried about the national debt remained unconvinced.

“The majority of Republicans are now no different than socialist Democrats when it comes to debt,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote in a July tweet criticizing Republican spending plans.

Given the dissent within the party, it wasn’t until Tuesday, July 28, that Senate Republicans unveiled pieces of their bill, the HEALS Act, which would authorize another round of stimulus checks and a reduced UI expansion aimed at matching 70 percent of a worker’s preexisting wages.

According to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), many Republicans aren’t expected to get on board with this narrower proposal, either. “Half the Republicans are going to vote ‘no’ to any more aid,” Graham said during a Fox News appearance in July. “That’s just a fact.”

As Senate Republicans have been grappling with their differences, the White House has focused on pushing its own priorities. While McConnell has repeatedly highlighted liability protections for businesses as an important redline, for example, the White House has signaled a willingness to approve a deal without them, according to the Washington Post. Additionally, the administration has sought the inclusion of unrelated measures like funding for a new FBI building, which McConnell has since opposed.

Ultimately, Republicans’ disjointed front led to a slew of negotiations that didn’t really go anywhere.

In recent days, the White House has sought to cast blame on Democrats by framing them as obstructionists for rejecting a temporary extension of UI support, a message that Meadows pushed on July 30.

“It surprises me that when we talk about compassion and caring about those that truly are in need, that a temporary solution to make sure that unemployment — enhanced unemployment — continues has been rejected not once but multiple times,” Meadows told reporters.

Democrats, however, worry that agreeing to a short-term extension means there won’t be any urgency for Republicans to consider a more comprehensive stimulus package — which the economy still needs. Pelosi noted that Democrats were reluctant to back a short-term proposal, with no larger compromise on the horizon.

“There would be a time for that — if we had a bill. What are we going to do in a week?” she said Friday.

Moreover, because final negotiations had been pushed so close to the July 31 expiration of enhanced UI, it would have been weeks before states could actually implement the extension. That’s not to say lawmakers shouldn’t have considered one; it speaks more to the fact that Republicans delayed acting for so long that UI recipients would have faced a gap in benefits no matter what.

For any bill to pass Congress, both Republicans and Democrats will have to buy in. The legislation will require the agreement of the majority of House Democrats, as well as the support of at least seven Senate Democrats, if the Republican caucus sticks together. Since Senate Republicans are expected to split on stimulus, it’s likely they’ll need even more Democratic support to get anything through this week.

There’s a lot at stake in this stimulus bill

The extension of unemployment insurance is just one of a long list of things that are at stake in the next stimulus bill. Funding for states and more coronavirus testing, as well as another round of stimulus checks, are among a slew of pressing provisions that lawmakers still need to work through.

Since it lapsed, the focus on UI has been front and center.

UI support has helped curb or halt a surge in the country’s poverty rate, per a study by researchers at the University of Chicago. And according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, both supplemental UI and the first $1,200 stimulus check expanded people’s disposable income from 5 percent to 7 percent between February and May.

This support has helped maintain a healthy level of consumer spending, which has, in turn, bolstered roughly 5 million jobs, the Economic Policy Institute found. If the enhanced UI fully lapses in the coming month, the fallout for individual households and the broader economy will be significant.

House and Senate Democrats are also intent on this coronavirus funding package targeting aid to states, cities, and towns, many of which had to dial up their own spending to try to curb the virus even as revenue from lost sales and income taxes dried up.

“The last recession felt like running down a hill,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego told Vox’s Emily Stewart in April. “This one feels like falling off a cliff, it happened so quickly.”

Skip ahead to July, and the situation is still bleak. Far from Covid-19 infections falling in the US, multiple hot spots have broken out around the country. The US has over 4.6 million confirmed cases, and more than 154,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins’s tracker. Yet with Congress stalling on a new bill, states are getting no new federal assistance, forcing many to consider cuts to other social services, including funding for public schools and universities. Money for public education support has never been more critical; some schools and colleges are set to open up at the end of the summer, while more will start the year with remote school.

The new stimulus, too, is intended to contain funding to help schools cover the necessary protections and precautions needed for reopening, as well as more money for both coronavirus testing and contact tracing, which will be crucial to get the public health crisis under control.

There are major implications for the general election

With the general election just months away, the pressure is growing on both parties to reach a deal.

Democrats may be able to point to the Republican delay thus far, but both parties are poised to face immense pushback from the public if stimulus continues to stall. And President Donald Trump will have to navigate voter backlash if economic conditions don’t improve. According to polling by CNBC/Change Research, 62 percent of voters in battleground states support extending enhanced unemployment insurance.

The stimulus limbo could also have a notable impact on the operations of the election itself, since states desperately need more funding to help facilitate vote-by-mail and other changes forced by the pandemic.

States also have to figure out how to run their elections in an unpredictable year with little assistance from the feds. The summer primaries have painted a worrisome picture: Many states are woefully underprepared for a 2020 general election in the age of Covid-19. States that have had universal vote-by-mail or no-excuse absentee voting in prior years should be in a better position to handle the high turnout of a presidential year. But it will be more difficult for states that are moving to no-excuse absentee voting for the first time to get up to speed and hold safe in-person elections by November 3.

“They almost have to run two elections instead of just one. It’s quite the challenge,” elections expert Ned Foley, a constitutional law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz School of Law, recently told Vox. “Looking at the primaries, unfortunately they show we have serious capacity challenges we are not yet ready for and we are really running out of time.”

With in-person voting, the main challenges have to do with staffing and physical space. Poll workers tend to be older or retired, and some are choosing not to volunteer at their polling place for fear of contracting Covid-19. This has caused some states and municipalities to close certain polling locations, which results in long lines at the places remaining open.

States trying to adapt to vote-by-mail systems in a short amount of time need to secure contracts with third-party vendors to print ballots, envelopes, and instructions for voters. States that are new to the system may also need to purchase costly equipment to scan and count votes in a timely manner because they simply don’t have enough people to process a crush of returned ballots.

The primaries so far have shown tremendous appetite from voters to cast their ballots by mailing an envelope. In the 2020 primary, Georgia saw nearly 1.5 million requests for absentee ballots, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office. In the 2016 presidential primary, the state got just 45,000 requests for absentee ballots, according to a Brennan Center report.

Worries also abound about the state of the US Postal Service, which is chronically in debt due to a 2006 law mandating it prepay its employees’ retiree benefits. The Post Office has asked Congress for financial help to no avail; Republicans seem intent on cutting costs there instead of giving it more money. Elections experts fear that recent changes to the USPS mail delivery times ordered by Trump donor and new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy could cause further delays for Americans casting their ballots absentee.

“For tens of millions of Americans, they’ll have their ballot handed to them by a postal worker, not a poll worker,” Tammy Patrick, a senior adviser on elections at the nonpartisan foundation Democracy Fund, recently told Vox. “They’re not getting the same sort of support from Congress and from the administration that we’re seeing fast-food restaurants get or some of these other service providers and markets.”

Congress allocated $400 million to states in the CARES Act it passed this spring, but many states spent most of their money to prepare for their summer primaries, and Congress has yet to pass more federal funds to help them prepare for the election by recruiting younger poll workers and expand their absentee mail capacity.

“It’s not that we’re doing five extra things with the money, it’s more of the things we’re doing now,” Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Vox. “To minimize the risk of something going wrong, more resources would be appreciated.”

Although Democrats had allocated $4 billion in the Heroes Act to help states on this matter, Republicans have shown little appetite for boosting election funding. And without bipartisan agreement on the issue, states may be left on their own to figure out how to safely and securely conduct an unprecedented election.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

01 Aug 03:00

The TikTok-Trump drama, explained

by Shirin Ghaffary
President Trump is reportedly expected to issue an order compelling social media app TikTok to sell its US operations. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

It looks like concerns over the company’s Chinese ownership have real consequences.

It looks like the Trump administration is getting tougher on TikTok, the wildly popular social media app that’s best known as a place for teens to post short videos, amid mounting national security concerns about the app’s relationship with the Chinese government. According to Bloomberg, President Trump plans to sign an order compelling TikTok’s parent company, Chinese-based ByteDance, to sell its US operations. Some are floating Microsoft as a potential buyer.

Trump’s order would reportedly direct ByteDance to divest from the US-based TikTok, last valued at around $80 billion, most likely by selling to another company. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed that the app was under government review on Wednesday, and that a recommendation would come by the end of the week. A government decision that forces TikTok to sell would be a game changer for the social media industry and would threaten to disrupt the app’s extraordinary rise in popularity with its some 80 million users in the US, many of them young. And for established US social media giants Facebook and Google, the decision could significantly weaken their fiercest new competitor.

For months, Trump and other politicians have raised concerns about TikTok as a potential national security threat, worrying that the company could censor content or access user data at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. TikTok has denied taking orders from the Chinese government to moderate content, and said it maintains all of its American user data outside of China, in either the US or Singapore. But reports last year indicated that TikTok was seemingly censoring content related to the Hong Kong protests, as well as other topics that are controversial with the Chinese government like Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence. These reports have fueled US government suspicions, particularly as China has been expanding its surveillance state in recent years and US-China diplomatic relations have cooled.

Republicans have escalated their attacks on TikTok this summer, with some bipartisan support from Democrats as well. On Thursday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Josh Hawley (R-MO) sent a letter to the Justice Department demanding that the agency open an investigation into TikTok and Zoom over reported violations of “Americans’ civil liberties” and national security concerns about relationships between these companies and the People’s Republic of China. This followed statements in July from Trump and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who both said the Trump administration was considering banning TikTok altogether. While the plan reportedly being considered wouldn’t amount to a ban, an order from President Trump would significantly disrupt TikTok’s business by forcing its ownership to change hands.

That could have negative consequences beyond the people running TikTok, too. The move threatens to jeopardize the success of an app that’s had a meteoric rise from a relative underdog to one of the most downloaded apps in the world. And since TikTok is one of the only recent social media startups to compete with tech giants like Facebook, weakening TikTok could further reinforce what many argue is the monopolistic nature of the US tech economy.

“While we do not comment on rumors or speculation, we are confident in the long-term success of TikTok,” a spokesperson for TikTok told Recode, adding that the company is “committed to protecting their privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.”

Here’s a breakdown of what’s going on and what’s expected next.

How this would work

You may be asking how Trump can force a company as popular as TikTok to sell off. The answer is complicated and bureaucratic.

If what’s being reported is true, Trump would issue the order for ByteDance to divest from TikTok through the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), an interagency committee that reviews foreign acquisitions and investments in US businesses that can threaten national security. The committee, which is chaired by Mnuchin, has the power to block or reverse mergers and acquisitions involving US and foreign companies.

Increasingly, the agency has been exercising its authority over foreign-owned tech companies operating in the US. Last year, CFIUS helped block one of the biggest deals in tech history, after Trump followed its recommendations to stop Singapore-based Broadcom to halt its acquisition of the US semiconductor company Qualcomm. The committee also forced Chinese owners to divest from the dating app Grindr and the health startup PatientsLikeMe.

But as Brookings fellow Geoffrey Gertz has written, tech companies weren’t always the target of CFIUS. In the past, the committee “tended to focus on companies with military or intelligence connections,” but more recently, personal data and high-tech intellectual property are of greater concern.

Last year, CFIUS started investigating ByteDance, which had purchased the Chinese-owned lip-sync video platform in 2017 and then rebranded and launched a similar app in the US under the name TikTok. When that investigation comes to a close, the committee’s recommendations will reportedly lead to Trump’s order for ByteDance to sell TikTok or divest its US operations.

It’s unclear how CFIUS would enforce a potential unwinding of ByteDance and TikTok, but last year, the committee issued a $1 million fine to an undisclosed company for not following through on a mitigation agreement, its first penalty of that kind.

What comes next

If Trump decides to order ByteDance to divest in it, that doesn’t mean TikTok as we know it will simply shut down in the US. TikTok is a valuable brand in a lucrative industry. Instead, the company behind the app will likely change ownership.

If TikTok is compelled to sell its US operations, it needs to find a buyer. And while tech giants like Facebook or Google might otherwise jump at the chance to buy a fierce rival, the current antitrust scrutiny they face could make it difficult for them to do so. Which is where Microsoft may come in.

Unlike the other major tech companies, Microsoft does not have a major stake in the social media space, which could put regulators at ease, making the deal more likely to get approved. Then again, Microsoft is a dinosaur by tech company standards, and its involvement could be seen as a kiss of death for TikTok, the ingenue of social media.

But if Microsoft runs it well, TikTok could continue to grow, and with the backing of a major US tech company, it might more seriously take on other social media companies, including Facebook. And Microsoft is by no means the only option — other firms could try to buy TikTok.

It’s too soon to say who exactly will end up buying TikTok’s US operations. In the meantime, there are plenty of Clippy jokes to make.

Support Vox’s explanatory journalism

Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

01 Aug 02:55

The TikTok Clusterfuck: Trump To Order Chinese Owner To Sell, Microsoft To Buy, And Competition Continues

by Mike Masnick

There's been a panic over the last few weeks about TikTok, the rapidly growing social network that is owned by the Chinese internet giant ByteDance (by way of history: ByteDance purchased a startup called in 2017, and rebranded it TikTok in 2018, and then it started growing like crazy). A few weeks ago, the Trump administration started suggesting it would ban TikTok, and a story was built up around the idea that TikTok was some sort of national security threat, despite very little evidence to support this. A separate narrative was simply that Trump was annoyed that TikTok kids made Trump look bad in Tulsa by reserving a bunch of tickets to his rally that they never intended to use.

Either way, it was announced today that the Trump administration was likely to order ByteDance to shed TikTok and immediately with that was the news that Microsoft was a likely buyer.

The whole thing is kind of silly. The most compelling argument I've seen for why the US should ban TikTok came from Ben Thompson at Stratechery, who more or less says (this is a very simplified version of his argument, so read the whole thing) that since China mostly bans US apps and services within its Great Firewall, there's an uneven playing field. I tend to lean slightly the other way: that supporting more freedom is a better approach. It feels like banning TikTok or forcing a sale is stooping to their level, and even validating their approach. And that worries me. And, yes, in the short run it puts us at a slight disadvantage on the global playing field, but frankly, US internet companies are still doing pretty damn well. The idea that we need to force a sale like this sets a questionable and potentially dangerous precedent -- suggesting we don't think that American firms can really compete.

On top of that, if the concern is about China, then the fact that most of our network and computer equipment is built in China would seem like maybe a larger concern? But beyond a weird, similar freakout about Huawei, no one seems to be taking any serious interest in that. And that doesn't get into the fact that US intelligence has leaned heavily on US internet companies to try to get access to global data -- meaning that there does seem to be a bit of US exceptionalism built into all of this: it's okay when we do it, but an affront if any other government might do the same thing...

Separately, this whole situation with TikTok and Microsoft demonstrates the pure silliness of the antitrust hearing in the House earlier this week. Note that there were claims that the four companies there represented "monopoly power." And yet, just days later, we're talking about how a recent entrant in the market, which has grown up quickly, and which Facebook certainly sees as a threat, is so powerful on the internet that it needs to be sold from its Chinese owners -- and the leading candidate to purchase it, Microsoft, is not even one of the "too powerful" companies who were on the panel.

If a new entrant can rise up so quickly to be a "threat" and then needs to be purchased by another giant... it certainly suggests that the internet market still remains pretty vibrant, and not at all locked down by a few monopolies.

31 Jul 18:22

America’s democracy is failing. Here’s why.

by Ian Millhiser
Amanda Northrop/Vox

Four ways America’s system of government is rigged against democracy (and Democrats).

Let’s start with a plausible scenario that could play out in the 2020 election.

Democrats win the popular vote by an even wider margin than Hillary Clinton’s nearly 3 million vote lead in 2016, running up the score in solid blue states and closing most of the gap in large red states like Texas. Pennsylvania and Michigan return to the Democratic fold, but Trump ekes out the narrowest of victories in Wisconsin. He walks away with exactly 270 electoral votes and the presidency.

Meanwhile, House Democrats have a strong year, but not nearly as strong as 2018. Democratic candidates win every congressional district where Hillary Clinton prevailed in 2016, plus every district where Clinton lost by less than 3 percentage points. Democratic House candidates win the total popular vote by a few percentage points, but it’s not enough. Despite her party’s popular vote victory, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is once again demoted to minority leader.

 Mark Wilson/Getty Images
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media after winning the House Democratic leadership election in Washington, DC, on November 30, 2016.

In the Senate, Democrats pick up seats in Colorado and Maine, but they never really have a shot at replicating Sen. Doug Jones’s fluke win in Alabama. Republicans end up with a 52-seat majority in the Senate — and, with it, the ability to keep filling the courts up with Trump judges. Although the Democratic “minority” would represent about 17 million more people than the Republican “majority” in this scenario, Mitch McConnell still controls the Senate.

Solid majorities of the nation, in other words, could vote for a Democratic White House, a Democratic House, and a Democratic Senate, and yet Republicans could gain control of all three.

The system is rigged. It was rigged from the outset, quite intentionally, to favor small states. Under current political coalitions, that’s become an enormous advantage for Republicans. The country’s framers obviously could not have known that they were creating a system that would give Donald Trump’s party an unfair advantage over Hillary Clinton’s party more than two centuries later. But they did create a system that favors small states over large states.

That means that a political coalition that is largely powered by voters in dense, urban areas — like, say, modern-day Democrats — are at a terrible disadvantage under this constitutional arrangement. (And, to be clear, the system would be just as anti-democratic if it put Republicans at a disadvantage instead.)

Republicans, meanwhile, take their unfair advantage and build on it by gerrymandering the states they control, using their Senate “majority” to fill the courts with Republican judges, and then using their control of the judiciary to bolster their own party’s chances in elections.

This is how United States now finds itself barreling toward a legitimacy crisis.

Four features of our anti-democratic democracy

Broadly speaking, there are four features of our system of government that make our democracy less democratic, many of them working in interlocking ways. These features also happen to give the GOP a structural advantage.

1) The Senate is deeply unrepresentative of the country

According to 2018 Census Bureau estimates, more than half of the US population lives in just nine states. That means that much of the nation is represented by only 18 senators. Less than half of the population controls about 82 percent of the Senate.

It’s going to get worse. By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of census projections, half the population will live in eight states. About 70 percent of people will live in 16 states — which means that 30 percent of the population will control 68 percent of the Senate.

Currently, Democrats control a majority of the Senate seats (26-24) in the most populous half of the states. Republicans owe their majority in the Senate as a whole to their crushing 29-21 lead in the least populous half of the states. Those small states tend to be dominated by white voters who are increasingly likely to identify with the Republican Party.

Senate malapportionment is a relic of an unstable alliance among 13 young nations. As Yale law professor Akhil Amar explains, the Articles of Confederation that preceded the Constitution were “an alliance, a multilateral treaty of sovereign nation-states.” The Constitution did not simply change the rules that governed an existing nation; it bound 13 independent and sovereign states together.

 William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
A sculpture of George Washington on display in Signers Hall, where visitors can walk among delegates of the Constitutional Convention, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 2003.

The Founding Fathers came together at Philadelphia to achieve union at nearly any cost, because they wanted to avoid the persistent warfare that plagued Europe. Without a union, Amar says, “each nation-state might well raise an army, ostensibly to protect itself against Indians or Europeans, but also perhaps to awe its neighbors.”

Nor was this merely a hypothetical concern. When large states proposed a fair legislature, where each state would be given seats proportional to its population, Delaware delegate Gunning Bedford literally threatened that his state would make war on its neighbors. “The large states dare not dissolve the Confederation,” Bedford insisted, or else “the small states will find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith.”

This is why we have a Senate: In a negotiation among 13 sovereign nations, each of these nations may demand equality as the price of union. Whatever the wisdom of this devil’s bargain in 1787, America is a very different place today. There is little risk that Utah will make war on Colorado, or that New Hampshire will invade Vermont.

Instead, we are heading toward a future where — barring some kind of major partisan realignment — the Senate will routinely feature a majority that represents far less than half of the nation as a whole. In the current Senate, the Republican “majority” represents about 15 million fewer people than the Democratic “minority.” And if current trends continue, the Republican advantage is likely to grow.

A common defense of our current arrangement is that Senate malapportionment wards off a “tyranny of the majority.” As the Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Feulner argues in a piece that’s fairly representative of Senate defenders, malapportionment “keeps less-populated states from being steamrolled.”

But there’s no reason to believe that residents of small states, as a class, make up a coherent interest group whose political concerns are in tension with residents of large states. The residents of Vermont (population: 623,989) vote more like the residents of New York (population: 19,453,561) than they do like the residents of Alaska (population: 731,545). The people of Wyoming (population: 578,759) vote more like the people of Texas (population: 28,995,881) than they do like the people of Delaware (population: 973,764).

There are over 20,000 more farms in California than there are in Nebraska. There are rural regions in large states. And there are some urban centers in small states.

There’s another factor to consider when thinking about the small state advantage: race. The Senate does not simply give extra representation to small states, it gives the biggest advantage to states with large populations of white, non-college-educated voters — the very demographic that is trending rapidly toward the GOP.

Chart of senate-weighted demographic composition Data for Progress

Republican dominance of the Senate is a relatively recent occurrence; Democrats, after all, held a supermajority in the Senate as recently as 2009. Yet the GOP’s dominance is also likely to remain durable for as long as many white voters continue to sort into the Republican Party. The Democratic supermajority in 2009 was made possible by Democratic senators in places like Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. It’s tough to imagine any of those states electing a Democrat so long as America’s current political coalitions remain stable.

Of course, Democrats could try to buck this trend by becoming more like Republicans. They could shift their positions to appeal to the whiter, more socially conservative voters that dominate many of the smaller states. But that’s hardly a solution for the majority of voters that support the Democratic Party’s current positions, who would become even more isolated from power.

And there’s one other point that’s worth making here. Two years ago, Neil Gorsuch made history, becoming the first member of the Supreme Court in American history to be nominated by a president who lost the popular vote and confirmed by a bloc of senators who represent less than half of the country. The second was Brett Kavanaugh.

Similarly, Senate malapportionment also allowed Republicans to hold the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacant seat open until Trump could fill it. When Scalia died in 2016, Republicans had a 54-46 majority in the Senate, despite the fact that Democratic senators represented about 20 million more people than Republicans in 2016.

Malapportionment, in other words, does not simply give Republicans an undemocratic advantage in the Senate. It also gave them control of the courts.

2) The next winner of the Electoral College could lose the popular vote by as much as 6 percentage points

The best case for the Electoral College was offered by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers. The choice of a president, Hamilton wrote, “should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the station.” Such a process, Hamilton assured us, “affords a moral certainty” that “the office of President will never fall to the lot of any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

Hamilton’s argument is refuted by three words: “President Donald Trump.”

Setting aside the fact that the Electoral College is the reason why a man who is not in any degree endowed with the requisite qualifications is in the White House, the Electoral College is not capable of achieving Hamilton’s stated goal. The people who make up the Electoral College are rarely “men most capable of analyzing” who would be an excellent president. They are typically partisan loyalists, selected by their party to perform one and only one task — robotically voting for whoever the party nominated to be president.

To date, this system has allowed five men who lost the popular vote to become president— Trump, George W. Bush, Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, and John Quincy Adams. Barring a political realignment, it’s likely that such “inversions” will become more common (as they already have in the past couple decades). A recent study by three researchers from the University of Texas found that “a 3.0 point margin favoring the Democrat (i.e., 48.5% Republican vote share, or a gap of about 4 million votes by 2016 turnout) is associated with a 16% inversion probability.”

In other words, a Democrat could potentially win the popular vote by as much as 6 percentage points and still lose the Electoral College to a Republican.

A chart showing the probability of a Republican win at various vote thresholds is skewed. Michael Geruso, Dean Spears, and Ishaana Talesara

A more modern defense of the Electoral College is similar to the conservative defense of the Senate. The Electoral College, according to Heritage’s Hans von Spakovsky, “prevents candidates from winning an election by focusing only on high-population urban centers (the big cities), ignoring smaller states and the more rural areas of the country.”

But if ensuring that candidates focus on the nation as a whole is the goal, the Electoral College defeats this goal. Thanks to the Electoral College, candidates focus almost exclusively on a handful of swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, or Michigan, while solid red states and solid blue states are largely ignored.

The real reason why the Electoral College exists is hotly contested. Some scholars, such as Amar and Harvard historian Jill Lepore argue that, in Lepore’s words, the Electoral College “was a compromise over slavery.”

This theory points to the Three-Fifths Compromise, which allowed slave states to count each slave living within their borders as three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining how many representatives those states should receive in the House. Because states gain electoral votes as they gain representation in the House, the Three-Fifths Compromise inflated slave states’ ability to choose a president.

Another theory, recently offered by political scientist Josep Colomer at the Monkey Cage, is that the framers never intended for the Electoral College to choose presidents. They merely expected the Electoral College to whittle down the list of candidates.

Under the original Constitution, the Electoral College would vote on who its members believed should be president. But, if no candidate received a majority, the House would choose the president from among the five candidates who received the most votes.

According to Colomer, “delegates in Philadelphia expected states would put forward a variety of candidates; none would win a national majority in the electoral college; and the election would typically pass to the House of Representatives.” The framers’ error was that they “didn’t expect candidates to emerge and run nationwide.”

So the Electoral College was either a poorly designed kludge that failed to achieve its intended purpose, or a misbegotten device intended to preserve a great evil.

3) Partisan gerrymandering is still allowed

As mentioned above, Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh owe their jobs to Senate malapportionment and the Electoral College — and Republicans owe their dominance of the judiciary to these two men. That dominance, in turn, has profound implications for who controls the House of Representatives.

Gerrymandering, to be clear, is not a uniquely Republican sin. When the Supreme Court took up the question of whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution earlier this year, it heard two cases. One involved a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina, the other a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland.

 Olivier Douliery/Getty Images
Demonstrators gather outside of the Supreme Court to call for an end to partisan gerrymandering in Washington, DC, on October 3, 2017.

But states must redraw their legislative maps every 10 years, shortly after the completion of the decennial census. This means that if one party dominates in an election year ending in a zero — as Republicans did in 2010 — that party will get to gerrymander a disproportionate number of states. Large swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania drew maps that locked Republicans into power in the state legislature. Their control over the state legislatures then gave the GOP an unfair advantage in the US House.

Some of these gerrymanders have since been weakened or dismantled by courts. But the legacy of others will persist into the 2020 election — and potentially beyond — thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Rucho v. Common Cause (2019), in which the Court ruled it can’t stop partisan gerrymandering. Rucho, it is worth noting, did not even attempt to defend partisan gerrymandering on the merits — indeed, it described it as “incompatible with democratic principles.”

Nevertheless, a majority of the justices believed that federal courts should not even consider challenges to partisan gerrymandering because they believed that the task of devising a legal test that could sort illegal gerrymanders from permissible maps is too difficult.

In Rucho, all five of the Court’s Republicans voted that federal courts are powerless to stop partisan gerrymandering. All four Democrats agreed that, at the very least, courts should dismantle the most egregious gerrymanders.

Again, Republicans owe that five-justice majority to Senate malapportionment and the Electoral College. Without these two anti-democratic features of our Constitution, it is likely that, at the very least, the most aggressive partisan gerrymanders would also be forbidden.

4) The Constitution is virtually impossible to amend

And that brings us to the last way that the Constitution is anti-democratic — it is almost impossible to amend it in order to remove these defects.

The United States Constitution, according to University of Texas law professor Sanford Levinson, “is the most difficult to amend or update of any constitution currently existing in the world today.” It takes three-quarters of the states to ratify constitutional amendments — which means that Republicans will almost certainly be able to block any attempt to remove the Constitution’s anti-democratic features.

Now, in fairness, there are good reasons why a constitution should not be too easy to amend. The Constitution’s difficult amendment process prevents a transient majority from coming into power, and then enacting a raft of amendments that entrench themselves in leadership.

But a difficult amendment process is only a virtue if the Constitution’s underlying structures are, themselves, conducive to democracy. If those structures become hostile to democracy — or if they tend to cement a minority faction in power — a difficult amendment process prevents the nation from replacing those flawed structures with a more democratic system.

Democrats can resort to nuclear tactics. If Democrats somehow manage to overcome the odds and capture Congress and the White House, they could divide large blue states like California and New York up into several states (provided that the legislatures of those states agreed to such an arrangement), thus changing the makeup of the malapportioned Senate. They could also add new seats to the Supreme Court to cancel out the GOP’s treatment of Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.

But such moves invite retaliation if Republicans regain control. If there can be 10 Californias, why not 50 Alabamas?

Realistically, the most democratic solutions, such as abolishing the Senate or replacing it with a body that fairly represents all Americans, are off the table in a nation that cannot amend its Constitution. And so we’re likely left with our undemocratic system for a long while, pushing for reform when and where possible, but likely unable to fix the system absent a major political realignment.

31 Jul 18:21

Should we be testing fewer people to stop the spread of Covid-19?

by Katherine Harmon Courage
Vehicles wait in line for Covid-19 testing at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on July 7, 2020. | Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

Smarter testing could help save the US pandemic response.

In late June, an Austin, Texas, man with a runny nose and sore throat got a Covid-19 test and was told it could take up to 10 days for his results to come back. While he waited, he shrugged off his symptoms as a cold and continued with his plans, which included attending a wedding outside Dallas.

Several days after the wedding, however, he felt much worse, with shortness of breath and a cough. So he went to the ER, where his physician, Natasha Kathuria, ordered a rapid Covid-19 test. It came back positive.

“If he had a test turnaround of 24 to 48 hours, he would have had a sustained sense of urgency, likely quarantined, and avoided infecting up to 150 people at a wedding,” Kathuria, who is also on the board of Global Outreach Doctors, a humanitarian nonprofit, tells Vox. Though Kathuria isn’t sure whether the patient infected anyone at the wedding, she says four or five of his friends have tested positive since. (It’s not clear if they caught it at the wedding or if they had been infected earlier, as “they had also been socializing quite a bit in the same group,“ she says.)

Although some Covid-19 results can be delivered within hours, 10-day wait times are now not unusual for results from the most common test — the kind that uses polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to look for an active infection — when patients who are not isolating can go on to infect others. While testing failures have been a blight on the US response since the beginning of the pandemic, the latest delays reveal a strikingly uneven system that hasn’t been able to scale up to meet spiking demand, stymying efforts to stop the virus’s spread.

It’s not just the new people with symptoms — and those with known exposure to the virus — who are stretching testing capacity, but also people who want assurance that they won’t infect others before traveling, socializing, or going back to work or school. And with the school year starting soon, the demand for testing is set to surge even more.

“There is a continuing, insatiable demand for testing that is expanding, from symptomatic patients to anyone interested in having a test performed,” Gary Procop, medical director of clinical virology at Cleveland Clinic and a board member of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, told Vox.

Quest Diagnostics, which has run about one in five US Covid-19 tests, for example, currently has an average wait time of a week or more for most people, with some waiting up to two weeks, it said in a statement.

While the federal government and others have been focused on the number of tests performed and encouraging more people to get tested, the backlog has been piling up.

If people at a high risk for spreading the disease — such as essential workers — are facing the same delays as someone at a low risk, it’s not a terribly efficient system and makes the prospects for getting control of the virus fairly grim. “The idea of just telling people to go get tested I think is the real challenge,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Waits of longer than a day, other experts agree, severely hinder our ability to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the US. Delays “really undercut the value of testing, because you do the testing to find out who’s carrying the virus and then quickly get them isolated so they don’t spread it around,” Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on Meet the Press July 19.

Indeed, a paper, published July 16 in The Lancet Global Health, argues that if test results were provided the same day — and comprehensive contact tracing happened right away — about 80 percent of new transmissions could be prevented, effectively stopping the spread of the virus.

But if test results take a week — and even if contact tracing is quick and effective — we’re only stopping about 5 percent of onward transmissions, the researchers concluded. They didn’t even bother to extrapolate to longer wait times than a week, which plenty of people in the US are experiencing.

The ideal turnaround for test results would be no longer than 24 hours and preferably less, say experts. And many hospitals, clinics, and academic institutions can meet this time frame. But if results take longer than three days, as they do in many communities, particularly underprivileged, hot spot areas, “they’re totally useless,” says David Lubarsky, a physician and CEO of UC Davis Health.

Why are these delays getting so bad? “We don’t have enough test kits to test everybody, or enough labs or enough machines or enough trained personnel,” says Lubarsky.

 Our World in Data
Number of Covid-19 tests performed each day in the US.

But it’s also about how tests, and results, are or aren’t getting prioritized.

Hospitalized patients typically get rapid results, often within a matter of hours. But when people in the community get a test — whether because they feel sick or because they are hoping to go on vacation — labs often aren’t being told whose tests to analyze first. So that leads everyone’s results to get delayed, including those who are most likely to be spreading the virus.

Though experts are adamant that community transmission must come down to alleviate some of the pressure on the testing system, they’re also calling on the government to approve rapid tests — and offer clearer guidance on who needs their results back first. Let’s dive in.

Labs are taking so long to process Covid-19 tests because we still don’t have enough supplies

To understand what’s behind the disastrous delays in Covid-19 test results, it helps to look first at the labs, which are struggling to maintain adequate levels of basic testing supplies, much as they did earlier in the pandemic.

The American Clinical Laboratories Association, whose members include Quest, LabCorp, BioReference, the Mayo Clinic, and others, says labs are facing high demand for key materials for the testing process, from the test kits themselves to essential chemicals, like reagents, and even the PCR machines used to run the tests.

And the near future doesn’t look much better. “The global supply chain remains constrained,” Louise Serio, a spokesperson for the association, wrote to Vox in an email. As production and international trade remain slow, and demand continues to surge, many components remain hard to come by. “We anticipate continued shortages of the supplies and equipment.”

Other labs are finding basic plastic components, like pipette tips and plates, in short supply, Procop says, for the same reasons. And deliveries for many materials “are not always consistent.”

Academic labs are also struggling. UC Davis Health, for example, has invested $3 million in the past few months to build up its testing capabilities, and now has the capacity to run more than 2,000 tests per day, providing results in less than 12 hours. But the labs aren’t able to get enough reagents to run more than 250 tests per day. “So we’re at about 12 percent of our current capacity,” Lubarsky says. “It’s just not right.”

As one Harvard public health expert put it recently in Time: “America’s testing infrastructure is collapsing.”

 Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
EMT Luis Chavez secures Covid-19 tests for delivery to a lab for processing on July 30, 2020, in Encino, California.

Delayed results are especially terrible for this virus

One of the biggest challenges in containing this coronavirus is that it frequently spreads before people develop any symptoms. In fact, an estimated 40 percent of people who get the virus may catch it from someone without symptoms. And others might be carrying — and spreading — the virus without ever getting sick. Which all makes it very challenging for people to make decisions, like avoiding all contact with others while waiting for test results, based on how they are feeling.

This presymptomatic and asymptomatic spread makes catching early cases particularly difficult, and essential, in high-risk settings like an assisted living facility. Lubarsky points out that delays in getting test results to prevent or stop outbreaks in these settings are especially harmful. If a facility can pinpoint infected individuals within a day of their test, they can quickly isolate them, find their contacts, and prevent much further spread. But, says Lubarsky, if results are trickling in over several days or a week, the virus has likely spread to other people, and the old results are, as he says, “absolutely useless.”

The long delays can also disincentivize even those with symptoms or with a known Covid-19 exposure from getting tested, says Osterholm. If people know they might have to wait more than a week for results that may no longer be relevant, they are more likely to figure, “why should I go get tested?” he says.

People might be especially reluctant to go in for testing if they know they will be in this limbo for a week or more. “One of the greatest impediments to viral containment is human impatience,” Lubarsky says. If you add to that people’s work realities and behavior, substantial testing lags “are just not acceptable and will not contain spread.”

The delays are also a reminder of the disparities between those who can more easily quarantine while waiting for results and those who cannot. For example, if you work a job that requires you to be physically present and doesn’t offer paid leave, it could be particularly hard to decide to miss work for 10 days as a precaution while you wait.

Additionally, many essential workers in relatively low-wage jobs who don’t get paid sick leave also regularly interface with the public. “So not only do they have a higher risk because of increased exposure, but they also increase the exposure to all of us,” Lubarsky says. “And while they might make a reasonable living, they don’t make the kind of living to take two weeks [off] waiting to find out if they’re positive.”

This is one of the big factors Lubarsky sees as contributing to the disproportionate spread of Covid-19 in underserved communities, including agricultural workers he sees in the Sacramento area. It’s also showing up in the preliminary scientific literature. One early report, cited in a recent Health Affairs article, found that in a mixed-income San Francisco neighborhood (the Mission District), Latinx people made up 95 percent of positive Covid-19 tests — and 90 percent of those who tested positive were unable to work from home.

As Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, put it in a Tuesday CNBC interview, “You need to make sure that low-income communities that are most at risk, that they’re getting those results back within 24 hours.”

On the other end of the spectrum, many universities are proposing to test their students and staff on a regular basis with quick-turnaround on-site processes. Harvard University, for example, is already testing faculty and plans to test all residential students and staff every three days starting in the fall semester. MIT is planning to test students living on campus with a similar frequency — twice a week — providing results within 24 hours. Both can do so because their tests can be processed at the Broad Institute, a biomedical research center that converted its genomics facility into a test processing center.

“I think it’s important to recognize the disconnect between the turnaround time and testing in different places in our community,” Sarah Fortune, an immunologist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said on a call with reporters this week. Those working in labs on campus are already getting at least weekly tests, results for which they get back in less than a day. But if someone else in the Cambridge area were to get a standard test, they wouldn’t see results for upward of a week, she noted. “So there’s an enormous discrepancy.”

Testing delays are hindering contact tracing efforts

As people wait additional days and weeks before getting their Covid-19 test results back, their memories naturally get hazier about whom they could have spread the virus to. And because mobile phone-based coronavirus tracking is not widely used in the US, we are still relying on people to tell contact tracers whom they remember being in contact with — a task that gets harder with each passing day.

Even if we all had perfect memories though, a delay in getting a positive result means that not only could that person be out infecting others, but also that those contacts could now also be spreading the virus.

For example, if the average symptom onset is about five days after infection, but people have the highest amount of virus in their system about a day before they start feeling sick, that means a delay of a week in getting results for one not-yet-symptomatic person could have sent the virus into two or so additional generations of patients. And with this virus’s exponential spread, if everyone infected goes on to infect an average of two other people, that means eight additional people now have the virus by the time contact tracing can even begin for the first individual.

And if the contacts face similar delays for their own test results, the new cases quickly pile up. (The number of new infections could be much higher if any of those people fails to physically distance and mask up in crowded places. This is also based on the assumption that people self-isolate once they start to feel sick.)

If that first person could have received their positive results in the same day, they could have reasonably been instructed to self-isolate, halting any forward transmission from them, and immediately informing any contacts to isolate and test, stopping spread there as well.

The authors of the new paper in The Lancet Global Health also map out how especially crucial rapid test results are for areas that are not using mobile app technology for tracing contacts.

The team found that viral spread could still be contained (reducing the average number of new infections from each person — known as the “R0” ratio — to below 1) with test result delays of about two and a half days, if 100 percent of the population were using a mobile contact tracing platform. If about half of a population were using the platform, test results could still come back after a day and a half. But with a conventional (person-based) contact tracing system, as we are relying on in the US, their model suggests test results would need to come back in less than a day to get the virus under control.

And not only is this not happening, but as cases spiral in certain areas, like they are in Florida and Texas, the budding contact tracing system gets overwhelmed, decreasing their ability to efficiently track every case. Or as Osterholm puts it: “It’s kind of like trying to plant pansies in a Category 5 hurricane — it’s not easy.”

How can we run more tests more quickly?

One thing that could improve the speed of getting results is, of course, using faster testing methods. The current PCR-based tests typically send tests to a lab for processing, which involves specialized supplies, machines, and personnel — not to mention the transport time and handling logistics. Some facilities, such as many hospitals, are able to do quick testing on site. (This is important, Lubarsky notes, because not only does that prevent the spread of Covid-19 from patients, but also every hour caring for someone who is potentially Covid-positive means another hour of staff using full PPE, yet another still-limited resource in some places.)

There are also other technologies we could be using to test for the coronavirus.

Many companies are at work on rapid at-home tests, which “would be tremendously helpful” if they are accurate enough, Osterholm says. (They would also need to be linked to the health department for tracking and communication back to the individual, he notes.)

There are concerns about robust accuracy in many rapid tests that are being developed — and some that have already been deployed. Although some experts argue that we shouldn’t, as they say, let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” in this case.

“We need the best means of detecting and containing the virus, not a perfect test no one can use,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University, asserted in an opinion piece in the New York Times. “Simple at-home tests for the coronavirus ... could be the key to expanding testing and impeding the spread of the pandemic.”

Others make the case that such rapid testing would also help us find more people who are infectious and let them know to isolate before they can spread the virus to others.

An interim step is “pooled” or “batch” PCR testing of samples. In mid-July, the Food and Drug Administration gave Quest emergency authorization to start using this process, in which some material from up to four tests is mixed together and run through the full PCR testing procedure. (LabCorp received a similar authorization in late July to pool up to five samples.) If the pooled result is negative, they were able to consolidate what would have been four or five analyses down to one. If the analysis picks up evidence of the virus, each one of the samples is then tested individually to determine which one (or ones) was positive.

With about 91.5 percent of tests coming back negative in the US right now, there is a good chance many batches will come back without signs of the virus, clearing all of the pooled individuals and freeing up that additional testing capacity for those who need it most.

 MediaNews Group via Getty Images
A Quest Diagnostics aircraft is loaded at the Reading Regional Airport in Bern Township, Pennsylvania, to transport medical samples to testing laboratories on April 2, 2020.

To slow the spread of Covid-19, should we actually be testing fewer people right now?

Many experts say what we really need right now is not more, broader testing but instead to be stricter — or, as they say, “smarter” — about who gets tested in the first place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently provides rough guidance on the use of testing. But Osterholm and his colleagues put together a much more robust hierarchy for “smart testing” when resources are limited. They lay out the order of who should get tests when resources are lacking:

  1. Hospitalized patients with symptoms
  2. Symptomatic health care workers, first responders, essential workers, and those who work in high-risk facilities (like long-term care institutions or homeless shelters)
  3. Symptomatic people in the community
  4. People without symptoms who live in high-risk facilities

“That’s where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck,” Osterholm says of making sure testing resources are used for these groups and in this order. This strategy “would cut down on a lot of unnecessary tests,” he says, “so we could do more with the tests that we currently have, which would speed things up — less volume and more high-impact outcomes.” And, of note, when basic testing capabilities are limited, as they are now, they specifically recommend not testing in schools, most workplaces, or the general community.

California has instituted a statewide prioritization hierarchy, which has four distinct levels for testing. The first groups include hospitalized patients with Covid-19 symptoms and people who have been identified as a part of an outbreak. Only in the last group for testing — which are conducted if results in the state are taking less than 48 hours — fall people who are asymptomatic but think they might have been infected and people getting routine workplace testing.

This is already playing out in the general community, which might be frustrating for many people but might be conserving testing resources for those with the very highest risk.

Some of the trouble nationwide, multiple experts said, is that many labs are not able to tell what category a person might fall into and thus are not always able to prioritize correctly.

Quest said that as of late July, it was stratifying “priority” and “other” patients, providing the former with a faster turnaround. But for the week of July 20, its average turnaround time for priority patients was still more than two days (versus one day the previous week). LabCorp also reported it was providing faster turnaround times for hospitalized patients.

UC Davis Health uses an algorithm to decide which tests to prioritize based on the risk of a person spreading the virus. “If there is a migrant worker who has suggestive symptoms, who lives in a multigenerational home, who’s about to get on a bus with 30 other workers, we want to know that now — as opposed to a 38-year-old executive who lives alone who has the sniffles,” Lubarsky says. “What’s gumming up the work is we’re testing all the worried well and don’t have a tiered system” for the country.

“Individuals visiting friends or going on vacation should not use precious testing resources and deny these to individuals in need”

Those representing major testing labs want this sort of direction, too. “Now is the time to decide what kind of testing is needed, at what levels, and where to ensure we’re deploying these tools where they’re most needed,” says Serio of the ACLA. “For example, we recently received guidance [from the Department of Health and Human Services] to prioritize samples from nursing home patients in certain hot spots. Continued clear direction [like this] is critical to better manage demand.”

And without more widespread rules, the testing giant Quest has been requesting individual health care providers themselves be the gatekeepers for who gets tested and how many tests they send to the company’s laboratories “so that we can direct our capacity to patients most in need,” it said in a statement.

But, in general, the federal government seems to be moving in the opposite direction of more targeted testing. In late July, the FDA authorized the first test specifically to screen people without symptoms or any reason to suspect they might have been infected. The test from LabCorp, which has been in use for suspected Covid-19 cases since March, requires the same PCR process and equipment as other current tests.

The currently limited PCR resources, Osterholm and others say, should instead be deployed for the most actionable cases.

Otherwise, we will continue to overwhelm the testing system, and localities will continue to need to reinstitute shutdowns to keep the virus in check.

But the other big piece of the testing puzzle is actually using our other methods — masking, physical distancing, etc. — to decrease the spread of the virus so we don’t have to test as much. “We’ve got to drive these case numbers down,” Osterholm says. “If we only needed to test one-tenth the number of clinical cases, we can start matching supply with actual need. Right now, our caseload outstrips supply capacity.”

Procop suggests we could still be in the early days of this challenge, especially as some people call for regular testing of school students and staff, which could add a massive burden to testing laboratories.

All of this means, however, in absence of more organized guidance about who should be getting tests right now, it is up to people to make that decision on their own, Procop says. “Individuals visiting friends or going on vacation should not use precious testing resources and deny these to individuals in need,” he says. “They need to mask, respect social distancing as much as possible, and wash their hands frequently.”

This could help reduce wait times for those at real risk of spreading the virus. We have to stop the virus as much as we can now, Osterholm says, because this fall, “things are only going to get worse.”

Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance science journalist and author of Cultured and Octopus! Find her on Twitter at @KHCourage.

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31 Jul 17:27

Are We Friends

by Reza
31 Jul 16:27

Businesses Should Call Police If Customers Don't Wear Masks, Bowser Says

Retailers who encounter customers who flout the face mask requirement in D.C. should call police, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday. 

Bowser extended an order last week requiring people to wear face coverings in most public settings. It also mandates that businesses post signs prohibiting people from entering unless they wear a mask. But national retailers, including Lowe’s, have said in recent days they will not ask workers to put themselves in potential danger by confronting mask-less shoppers.  

“They should call the police and the police will enforce it,” Bowser said during a news conference, after a reporter asked what businesses in the District should do if shoppers refuse to wear a mask.

People who violate the city’s mask mandate could be fined up to $1,000 and could face prosecution in D.C. Superior Court, according to the order.

The recommendation from Bowser comes as community members and activists have struggled to get D.C. police to wear masks, including during protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Nassim Moshiree, the policy director of the D.C. chapter of the ACLU, asked Bowser and Police Chief Peter Newsham  earlier this month to mandate that officers wear face masks.

“It is alarming to see Metropolitan Police Department officers, as front-line government workers, not adhering to public health guidance on the use of personal protective equipment,” Moshiree said earlier this month. 

Protests against police brutality have also led to increased scrutiny of citizen calls to the police, and the violence that sometimes follows.

Bowser also urged community groups and advisory neighborhood commissioners, who advise D.C. government, to encourage social distancing as the region grapples with rising coronavirus cases. The city is in Phase 2 of reopening, which prohibits mass gatherings of more than 50 people. 

Earlier this week, the city imposed a 14-day self-quarantine requirement for people traveling to Washington from states deemed “high-risk” by health department officials. States are considered high-risk if they record 10 or more new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people each day.

31 Jul 13:43

Whisper Networks Long Warned Women About A Prominent Local Journalist. Now, They’re Going Public

A series of allegations against former WAMU transportation reporter Martin Di Caro depict a clear pattern of inappropriate behavior, even as he continued to receive professional opportunities and public accolades.

Aimee Custis Photography / Flickr

Repeatedly telling a spokesperson for a D.C. councilmember how he thought she looked in a dress. Sending suggestive, late-night messages to young colleagues. Inviting a news assistant to a networking event, only to bring her to one-on-one drinks and ask her to come home with him. Looking women up and down “like a cartoon wolf” in the workplace. Telling a transportation expert at professional drinks that “I want to fuck you, no strings attached.”

These are some of the allegations that women in the local media and transportation scene have made against Martin Di Caro, who served as one of the D.C. region’s premier transportation reporters for half a decade. His most visible perch was at local public radio station WAMU until he departed at the end of 2017. (DCist was acquired by WAMU in 2018.)

In isolation, many of the women believed the incidents didn’t rise to the level of an official complaint. Others feared speaking out would damage their careers.

Viewed in totality, though, the allegations depict a pattern of inappropriate behavior, even as Di Caro continued to receive professional opportunities and public accolades. He was considered a trusted source for transportation news. And he became, among some advocates and enthusiasts in the field, a kind of beloved (if somewhat eccentric) figure.

Di Caro did not respond to multiple requests for comment, including a detailed list of the allegations in this story, though he did send an email to former colleagues broadly denying that he had ever engaged in troubling behavior at WAMU.

DCist spoke with 24 people, all women or other people of marginalized genders, who said they experienced some form of inappropriate behavior from Di Caro while working as journalists, government communications professionals, or members of the transportation advocacy community, and with additional people who witnessed the events firsthand. Many were able to provide texts, emails, and other written communication to back up their accounts.

Leadership at WAMU, his employer from 2012 to 2017, knew about some of the alleged misconduct. It was the subject of at least two human resources investigations, one in 2014 and another in 2016, according to documents obtained by DCist. “Your actions and communications have caused some individuals to feel harassed, offended, insulted, and/or degraded,” reads a confidential 2016 memo from station management to Di Caro obtained by DCist. He would continue to work at the station for another year and a half.

Di Caro’s alleged conduct also impacted his ability to do his job: In 2014, Metro banned him from covering board meetings or otherwise entering the agency’s headquarters for five months over repeated comments about a spokesperson’s appearance and entreaties for her to go out with him. At the time, he told a fellow reporter at WAMU that the transit agency used the spokesperson’s complaint as a way to box out a critical journalist, the colleague told DCist.

While women would warn one another about his behavior through whisper networks, the dam broke publicly after one former WAMU employee tweeted on July 8 that Di Caro “engaged in behavior and made comments … that have made many young women in the journalism industry uncomfortable … This was not just the occasional harmless comment that tip-toed up to the line. A lot of us believed that it was. I believed that for a long time.”

The same day, Di Caro sent an email to former WAMU colleagues, which was obtained by DCist. “I forcefully deny … the claim that I mistreated any of my WAMU colleagues,” he wrote. “I did not create a hostile work environment at WAMU.”

WAMU General Manager JJ Yore, who co-wrote the 2016 memo about Di Caro, told DCist in an emailed statement that he was “saddened … to learn the extent to which staff felt uncomfortable with the behavior of a former WAMU employee. The concerns and complaints that have been raised occurred on my watch — and they are unacceptable.” (Yore sent a slightly altered version of this statement to WAMU staff in advance of the publication of this article. He did not review this story before it published.)

Since 2018, Di Caro has worked as a part-time news anchor and reporter at Bloomberg Radio. The public allegations prompted the company to briefly suspend him pending an investigation, but he has since been reinstated. “We conducted a review and did not find any allegation or instance of wrongdoing during his time with us,” according to a Bloomberg spokesperson.

Numerous people aware of his alleged misconduct going back to 2012 had been waiting for the day it would come to light, they tell DCist. But, given that it was an open secret in some circles for so many years, why did it take this long to become public?

Multiple government communications professionals say that Di Caro, shown here moderating a 2018 panel discussion, commented about their appearance while they were trying to do their jobs.betterDCregion / Flickr

‘I knew in my bones there were others’

Kelly Whittier met Di Caro shortly after she started as the communications director for Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in late 2013. The councilmember chairs the D.C. Council’s transportation committee, putting Di Caro and Whittier, who was then in her early twenties, in regular contact. “Any effort, legislation, initiative, or controversy, our paths would cross,” Whittier says.

For more than a year, Di Caro would make unwelcome comments about her appearance, remarking on her body and how her clothing fit, sometimes in the presence of colleagues or other reporters, according to Whittier.

“It just made you feel like you wanted to crawl out of your skin,” she says. “I really was embarrassed that other people had seen this happen, had overheard this happen, because I didn’t want people to think I was encouraging it, and I didn’t want them to look at me that way, either.”

Graham Vyse, who worked as a reporter for The Current Newspapers from 2013-2015 (Vyse has also contributed to DCist as a freelance writer), says he observed Di Caro making comments to Whittier on one occasion at Cheh’s office, when both reporters were waiting for an interview with the councilmember.

“I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the moment vividly,” says Vyse, who recalls Whittier appearing visibly bothered by the exchange. “It just struck me as inappropriate, something that might make her uncomfortable, something you wouldn’t say to a woman in a professional setting. … A reporter shouldn’t talk that way to a 20-something female staffer.”

After Di Caro left the room for his interview, Vyse checked in with Whittier, according to both of them, and she acknowledged that Di Caro had made her uncomfortable.

“There are dozens of male reporters in this world who have never made me feel that way, who have never made those comments, that have never crossed this boundary,” says Whittier. “There’s a way to interact with young women that doesn’t make them feel sort of belittled and objectified and insecure about how they’re presenting themselves.”

Whittier says that her colleagues in Cheh’s office noticed Di Caro’s treatment of her and offered to intervene. “I declined it,” says Whittier. “I wanted to be strong enough so this didn’t bother me and give the appearance of handling it on my own.”

She says she also worried that any intervention from the office might have negatively impacted Cheh’s relationship with Di Caro and his coverage of the transportation committee. Whittier didn’t tell the councilmember about her experiences.

Instead, “I would do odd things to protect myself,” Whittier says. “I would throw on a blazer before going out to meet him in the front office. I would sit at a greater distance from him and delete uncomfortable text exchanges, trying to erase them from happening.”

The constant comments from Di Caro got to her, though. “We’d introduce a bill or there’d be a legislative meeting or something. I knew we would interact, and so I was feeling a level of anxiety or hesitation about receiving a text or a visit” from the journalist, Whittier says. “My physical safety was never in question to me, but the emotional toll it took and the fact that I felt as though my mind and my work didn’t matter, it was something else that I didn’t want to be a part of my professional career.”

By early April 2015, she decided to text Di Caro to explicitly tell him to stop. She tried to balance her desire to set clear boundaries with concerns about the impact it might have on her office’s ability to effectively communicate with one of the region’s key transportation reporters.

“I was doing everything in my power to protect his ego and make it as gentle as possible for him so we could maintain a good relationship,” she says. She ended her request for him to stop making comments about her appearance with a smiley face to soften the blow, in a text exchange reviewed by DCist.

“Sorry that I offended you,” Di Caro wrote back. “That wasn’t my intention but I apologize.”

After that, “he essentially would cut me out of the process and go straight to the councilmember … and that was frustrating because it was the last thing that I wanted,” says Whittier. “I had worked so hard to confront him in a way that wouldn’t affect our working relationship and wouldn’t affect my boss’ relationship with him, and it didn’t matter.”

Despite her request, Whittier says that Di Caro’s comments about her appearance often continued when they crossed paths. She didn’t take further action. “It never occurred to me that I would have the option, or to even consider going to someone at the station,” she says. “I don’t even know who I would go to in the first place.”

Unbeknownst to Whittier, then-Metro spokesperson Caroline Laurin was facing a similar situation with Di Caro during the same time frame, but the transit agency reported it to his employer.

“WAMU knew and I know they knew, and it happened anyway,” says Laurin, who also served as the chair of Metro’s sexual harassment task force.

Yore, WAMU’s general manager, said in a statement that he could not comment about any personnel matters publicly due to policies set forth by American University, which holds the station’s license, and legal obligations.

“It’s critical that we do not share sensitive personnel information about any current or former staff, particularly in sensitive situations — to do so may cause current staff to be reluctant to raise concerns due to fear of public exposure or retribution,” Yore said. “I recognize and regret that this means aspects of this story will remain unchallenged and incomplete.”

Unlike most of the people who recounted inappropriate behavior to DCist, Laurin was in her early thirties and married when she first met Di Caro. “He would make lewd looks and make small comments that were icky, but it wasn’t terrible in the beginning,” she says. “It was annoying and made me feel kind of gross, but for the most part it was fine.”

In late 2013, her interactions with Di Caro took a turn for the worse, according to Laurin. Her divorce became public because she had changed her last name, and she says his comments about her appearance became more frequent.

“I was just trying to do my job … and unfortunately that meant I had to interact with him. My role was to answer his questions,” says Laurin. “He would say things and do things in front of tons of people all the time. He was brazen about all of it, making comments about me running away for the weekend or when I would go on a date with him.”

She explicitly told him to back off over email after he asked her for a “professional” drink, she says, and he did so for about two to three months. But then it started up again, per Laurin. She began dreading the Metro board meetings every other Thursday, where she knew she would see him.

Before one board meeting, “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to wear this one dress,’ and stopped and thought, ‘I can’t wear this dress — Martin’s going to be there,’ ” says Laurin. “That stopped me in my tracks. It’s gotten to the point where it’s affecting how I was dressing, how I would sleep, knowing I would have to endure the onslaught of whatever he was going to be throwing my way.”

That’s when Laurin went to her superiors at Metro and told them about Di Caro’s behavior, she says. A Metro official with knowledge of the matter, who is not authorized to speak publicly about personnel, confirmed Laurin’s account to DCist. Laurin says she was initially reluctant to file a formal complaint out of fear it would impact his career.

“I kept telling myself, ‘It’s not that bad,’ but then it dawned on me — if he was this brazen and this open and this inappropriate with me, with no qualms about it, there is no way I am the only person experiencing this,” says Laurin. “I knew in my bones there were others.”

Metro banned Martin Di Caro from covering board meetings or otherwise entering the agency’s headquarters, pictured here, for five months over repeated comments about a spokesperson’s appearance, a Metro official confirms.nevermindtheend / Flickr

More than one ‘Final Written Warning’

Metro brought a formal complaint about Di Caro’s behavior to WAMU, which did not have any dedicated human resources staff. But the complaint prompted an investigation by the human resources department at American University. (AU holds the license for WAMU.)

A confidential memo outlining the investigation’s findings was sent to Di Caro on Oct. 22, 2014, from Deadre Johnson, AU’s senior director of employee relations and recruiting. It says that Di Caro “admitted to making inappropriate comments about the complainant’s appearance. This conduct is inappropriate and has no place in the work setting.” The memo also copies Yore, who had become the station’s general manager a few months prior in August 2014.

Matt Bennett, American University’s chief communications officer, declined to comment on the specific allegations, writing in an emailed statement that “AU employment-related investigations are conducted in accordance with our policies. For confidentiality reasons, we cannot comment on individual matters.”

Bennett added that “American University is committed to fostering a safe and welcoming workplace environment and expressly prohibits all forms of discrimination, harassment, and sexual misconduct. We know this type of behavior unfortunately occurs and we support our employees who have experienced these unacceptable situations.”

While the 2014 memo does not mention Di Caro’s ban from Metro board meetings and the agency’s headquarters, it was confirmed by Laurin, the current Metro official, and two WAMU colleagues of Di Caro at the time. Di Caro was also barred from contacting Laurin directly with questions, according to the Metro official.

One of Di Caro’s former colleagues at WAMU, a reporter who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution, recalls Di Caro saying that the transit agency was using the complaint as a pretext to ban a critical journalist from reporting on meetings.

The Metro official denies that characterization and says the ban was put in place to provide a harassment-free workplace for Laurin. Ultimately, Metro granted conditional approval for Di Caro to cover Metro board meetings again in March 2015 — after he had taken a sexual harassment prevention training, according to the official. At that point, Laurin was no longer an employee of the transit agency.

In addition to filing a report with WAMU about Di Caro’s behavior, the Metro official says the transit agency also alerted WUSA 9, a local television station for whom Di Caro was filing stories at the time.

Di Caro appears to have last tweeted about stories he filed for WUSA 9 in mid-October 2014, around the time of the ban.

WUSA 9 declined to comment on the circumstances regarding the end of Di Caro’s work with the station. “As a matter of policy, we don’t comment on personnel or personnel matters,” content director PJ O’Keefe wrote over email.

But a former WAMU colleague tells DCist they were left with the impression that WUSA 9 treated the allegations against Di Caro more seriously than the public radio station, which continued to work with Di Caro — and in fact hired him on staff full time — after Metro’s complaint.

Yore followed up on the human resources investigation in another memo to Di Caro, also dated Oct. 22, 2014, with the subject line “Final Written Warning.” It states that Di Caro needed to take an online sexual harassment course within five days and that “any repetition of the behavior discussed above or any violations of university policy will result in the immediate termination of your employment.”

In April 2015, a month after Metro granted Di Caro conditional approval to cover WMATA board meetings again, WAMU promoted him from part-time to a full-time role at the station.

Less than two years after the Metro ban, a memo from WAMU leadership states Di Caro was the subject of another HR investigation, which found that he had continued to engage in the same kind of behavior that led to the 2014 complaint. It’s not clear what specific incidents led to the later report.

This June 2, 2016 memo to Di Caro came from Yore and Andi McDaniel, then-senior director of content and news, with the subject “Level III Final Written Warning for Serious Misconduct.” (McDaniel began at the station in September 2015, the first to fill the new senior director role. She left daily station operations in June 2020 and will begin as CEO of Chicago’s WBEZ in September.)

“Despite repeated warnings and counseling, for almost two years we have continued to receive complaints from various women journalists about your conduct,” reads the memo from Yore and McDaniel. “These continuing complaints … call into question the appropriateness of your personal communications with women, your ability to perform your job effectively, and whether the conduct complained of negatively affects the reputation and mission of the radio station and your reporting.”

It goes on to say that, “Regardless of the veracity of the claims — some of which we find meritorious and others less so — the complaints in total demand time and engagement from WAMU’s management and the University and jeopardize your employment.”

According to AU’s personnel policy manual, Level III offenses represent the most serious misconduct. The manual states that the disciplinary process should proceed with “immediate dismissal,” though “a lesser penalty may be imposed if the supervisor thinks it more appropriate.”

This memo, like the one that came before, says that Di Caro faced “immediate termination” if he did not change his ways: “WAMU will not condone this behavior.”

Meanwhile, the station continued to give Di Caro key roles and opportunities. McDaniel announced in a staff-wide email in April 2016 that “the indefatigable Martin Di Caro” would become a senior reporter on the transportation and development beat. And at the end of May that same year, WAMU launched its first digital-only podcast, Metropocalypse, featuring Di Caro as its host.

Di Caro was tireless, prolific, and consistently breaking news on his beat. He was one of WAMU’s most identifiable reporters at the time and won multiple awards for his work at the station.

“It’s not unusual for really strong journalists to be abrasive and difficult,” says a former WAMU manager, who asked for anonymity over concerns about retaliation at their current job. “Asking great questions, sometimes interrupting [people] when they’re not answering things clearly, digging into very embarrassing or sensitive information about their lives or careers, not being discouraged when people don’t want to talk to you — all of those things can be part of what makes someone a great journalist. It was hard sometimes to figure out when Martin’s behavior went across that line.”

Three former co-workers of Di Caro at WAMU say they believed that management put up with Di Caro’s alleged misconduct because he was good at his job. “He produced a lot of content, it was good reporting, it was on topics that did well with our audience,” a former colleague says. “That absolutely protected him.” A fourth person, who held a managerial position and had knowledge of the situation, tells DCist they share that understanding of station leadership’s approach to Di Caro.

Yore said in his statement that, “To address the suggestion that we would disregard inappropriate behavior due to an employee’s stature at the organization, I can assure you that is not consistent with our policy and did not occur here.”

Another former WAMU employee, who held a series of roles in the content department and requested anonymity for privacy reasons, had a different explanation for the station and many of its employees putting up with his behavior: “When we thought about Di Caro, it was an eye-roll at the time. … He wasn’t thought of as a predator — he was thought of as annoying, as a doofus who had no skills and thought he had skills.”

But what appeared to be harmless, if awkward, behavior to some, was anything but to some of the people on the receiving end of his behavior.

“It’s not unusual for really strong journalists to be abrasive and difficult … It was hard sometimes to figure out when Martin’s behavior went across that line,” says a former WAMU manager of Di Caro, pictured here interviewing then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in 2013.M.V. Jantzen / Flickr

Alleged misconduct toward female journalists

The earliest allegations against Di Caro in D.C. stretch back to 2012, when he first moved to the city, and include both his time at WAMU and WMAL, a talk radio station owned by Cumulus Media, where he worked part-time, according to former colleagues.

Three former employees at the WMAL offices, who were all in their early twenties when they overlapped with Di Caro, describe similar experiences in 2012, when he was in his late thirties: He would message them late at night, talk about their appearances in ways that made them uncomfortable, and ask them repeatedly to get a drink with him, often by promising opportunities to network with other journalists. They all declined to be named due to privacy concerns.

When one of the women first met Di Caro at WMAL, she was a part-time news assistant at the station. It was her first journalism job. She noted that he appeared well-respected in the office and was very nice to her, always offering professional advice. So when he invited her for a drink, presenting the evening as a mixer with other journalists, she says she accepted.

As she discovered when she got there, it wasn’t a mixer — it was just drinks with Di Caro. After one drink, he offered to get a second round and said, “You’re going to get drunk, aren’t you?” with a smile, per the news assistant, who describes that as “my first red flag.” Then, he began complimenting her appearance and telling her that he only dated women in their twenties, she says.

After they finished their drinks, Di Caro told her she could spend the night at his apartment — she declined and went home instead, she recounts. One of her WMAL colleagues recalls her telling this story at the time, the co-worker confirmed to DCist.

After that experience, the woman says, she stopped being friendly and declined Di Caro’s further invitations for drinks. Another uncomfortable moment she remembers occurred after the evening of drinks, when the two of them were the only people in the WMAL newsroom. He asked her how she was, she recalls, and she tried to be polite by asking him in return. She remembers his response: “I’m fine, but I feel like I’m about to pounce on a 22 year old.” She was 22 at the time.

After that, she says she ignored him as much as she could, but their desks were near each other. On days they were scheduled for the same shifts, he was always staring at her, she alleges.

“It definitely made me dread going to work and made it uncomfortable for me to be at work,” she says. “He would literally always be there in the periphery. … I remember him eyeing people, looking at women at work up and down like a cartoon wolf, and that was really creepy.”

But she was also worried about going to management during her first job in journalism. “I didn’t want that to be the first big thing I tackled at my job,” she says. “I just wanted to do the work and get the clips and get out of there.”

She says she warned two other news assistants who joined WMAL, also women in their early twenties, about him. On her last day of employment in 2012, she recounts telling WMAL management that Di Caro sexually harassed her and was inappropriate with other people in the office.

When reached over the phone, WMAL News Director John Matthews said he was “not authorized to speak about anyone who used to work here,” and directed DCist to WMAL Program Director Bill Hess, who has not responded to requests for comment. Executives at Cumulus Media also did not provide a response to questions about Di Caro’s employment.

Allegations of inappropriate behavior haven’t been confined to immediate colleagues and sources. DCist spoke to five D.C.-based journalists with only tenuous connections to Di Caro who each said that they were subjected to unwanted messages, sometimes for years, after fleeting encounters.

One of them was a former WMAL employee, Bridget Reed Morawski, who met Di Caro briefly in the radio station’s newsroom in 2016 when she was in her early twenties. Later, after she left the station for a different journalism job in D.C., she says Di Caro sent her a series of private messages on Instagram and Facebook, mostly in 2017 and 2018.

“The messages were random, but tended to come whenever I posted a photo of myself,” she says, describing their content as “obvious unwarranted and unwanted flirtations.” Many of them were about her appearance. (“You look great,” read one. Another: “I’ll try really hard not to like *all* your photos.”)

On almost every occasion, she either responded curtly or not at all. Their most lengthy exchange occurred after she told him she was in a long-distance relationship and “he questioned why I would want to date someone so far away given my physical attributes,” she says.

She felt uneasy about the messages, in part because she knew Di Caro’s girlfriend, but also because their power differential in the journalism world gave her pause about telling him to stop.

“I didn’t feel comfortable telling Martin to eff off because he’s just much higher in his career,” Morawski says, adding that, at the time, she was interested in working in radio. She hoped he would just “get bored” at some point and leave her alone.

Young women at WAMU similarly say they experienced inappropriate behavior, including late-night messages, from Di Caro.

“I witnessed him very overtly hitting on women of all ages, across the spectrum, but especially younger women, overtly trying to flirt with [them] in ways that were not appropriate in a workplace setting,” says one former WAMU colleague of Di Caro’s.

After allegations against Di Caro were publicly aired on social media earlier this month, WAMU producer Avery Kleinman tweeted that, “Martin made me feel uncomfortable, but it was mixed with what seemed like genuine kindness and encouragement about my work. I guess that’s how it goes, and part of the manipulation at play, intentional or not.”

Eva Harder was a WAMU newsroom intern in 2013. It was her first time working in a newsroom, and she remembers feeling intimidated. At that time, internships at the organization weren’t paid. Di Caro was friendly to her, she says, and he was among the newsroom journalists she followed on Twitter. A few weeks into her internship, she says Di Caro began sending her private messages on Twitter.

Harder also had a paid internship elsewhere that summer and remembers Di Caro asking her about it — she told him it was a marketing internship near Farragut Square. One day, when she was working at her marketing internship, Harder says Di Caro messaged her out of the blue to say that he was reading in Farragut Square.

Harder says this was alarming to her. While she didn’t feel physically unsafe, she says she was creeped out that an older male colleague wanted to tell her he was physically nearby.

She says she told her manager at WAMU, who Harder declines to name, and said she didn’t want to file a formal complaint, but wanted to make it clear that “there’s no way I am ever going to be alone in a car with him, I’m not going to be alone with him ever.”

Two WAMU employees at the time confirm Harder’s recollection to DCist. One of them says that Di Caro’s behavior wasn’t limited to Harder — it “was rampant and management knew all about it.”

DCist spoke to nine current or former WAMU employees who recall hearing about Di Caro’s inappropriate or uncomfortable behavior through the whisper network and four who say they experienced it firsthand.

When an employee in her early twenties arrived at the station midway through Di Caro’s time there, she says she had already been warned about him by a friend who had received unwanted late-night messages over several years from Di Caro.

Weeks into her job at WAMU, she says she was cautioned about him separately by her colleagues and manager, who told her she should take any rumors she heard about Di Caro to heart. (Another former employee says that she too was warned by this manager to watch out for Di Caro and to avoid going anywhere alone with him.)

That same manager would also occasionally assign her to work with Di Caro. “It made me confused about what kind of workplace would continually warn me about someone and then put me in a position where I had to work with him and prop up his work and build his brand,” she says.

When she first received the warning from her manager, the employee says she felt encouraged that a male colleague would look out for her. But the longer she worked at the station, the more she wondered why people continued to alert young women at the station about the problem rather than address its source.

She observed that Di Caro appeared to be on good terms with many of his colleagues and had a persona as a peculiar, blustery guy. According to her, that “allowed us all to dismiss his annoying behavior as funny, and his sexual harassment was part of that. … People aware of this open secret hung out with him outside of work.”

A local news reporter at another outlet, to whom Di Caro provided professional advice after he left WAMU, also noted his public relationships with other respected D.C. journalists at a number of media organizations, including men and women. She asked for anonymity over concerns about retaliation from Di Caro.

“They would never hang out or endorse anyone who was a harasser, right?” she recalls thinking, despite feeling uncomfortable with his late-night texts and comments about her appearance in 2018 and 2019. Unlike many others, she never received any warnings about him through the whisper network.

“Dealing with Martin’s lack of boundaries felt like the price of entry to the D.C. media scene,” she says. “It felt like something I could handle, even if it was unpleasant.” Now, seeing how many other women have shared similar experiences, she feels like the story about Di Caro’s behavior is about more than one man — it’s about the “larger failing of a community.”

A local reporter from a different newsroom, a man who covered some of the same stories as Di Caro, says knowledge of his behavior was well-known during his time in the D.C. press corps.

“I think if I had been at WAMU, I might have felt obliged to bring it up with a superior,” he says. “It wasn’t my company. It wasn’t my workplace. I wasn’t going to go to WAMU and tell them this. Maybe now in the wake of #MeToo, with my sensitivity more heightened, I would talk to someone about it.”

Di Caro’s tireless coverage of Metro and other transportation topics in D.C. won him fans. “We loved his coverage,” says one woman in the local transportation field. “And I think we kind of fawned over him.”John Sonderman / Flickr

Women in the transportation community with a ‘Martin story’

Di Caro’s tenure on the transportation beat coincided with a pivotal time for Metro, including a fatal smoke incident and a yearlong maintenance plan that would have a huge impact on riders. There were other major stories: Uber and other ride-hailing services were entering the D.C. region, and so were a slew of bikeshare programs.

Di Caro was all over it. He was a presence at urbanist networking events and moderated transportation panels.

“He was a celebrity for us,” says one woman who works in the local transportation field and interacted with Di Caro as part of her job. “We loved his coverage … and I think we kind of fawned over him.”

Indeed, when Di Caro announced he was leaving WAMU, prominent urbanist site Greater Greater Washington wrote a goodbye post that said, “We’re going to miss your reporting (and your terrible dad jokes) Martin!”

However, there are women in various realms of the male-dominated transportation community who had what some referred to as “a Martin story,” and seven of them shared their experiences with DCist.

One woman, who served as a transportation expert for some of his stories, says Di Caro asked her to go for after-work drinks during the summer of 2017, when she was in her early thirties. (She requested anonymity over concerns about her privacy.) She was working under the assumption that it was a professional get-together, which is common in her field.

She says that 10 minutes into the conversation, he told her, “I want to fuck you, no strings attached.” She responded, “What makes you think I’m straight?” — an answer she recalls flustering him. The conversation largely returned to transit-related topics for the rest of the evening, she says, though occasionally he would ask, “Are you sure you won’t reconsider?”

Of that experience, she says that “I thought it was not the classiest move I’d ever seen, to put it mildly, but I didn’t feel any sense of damage.” She thinks that much of that stems back to the fact that she saw Di Caro as an equal, rather than someone with power over her.

Still, she hasn’t forgotten the specific dress she wore that night. “I remember thinking, ‘Should I have not worn a dress today?’ ” she says. “And then thinking that was utterly ridiculous.”

Afterward, she says she would get occasional texts from Di Caro that said, “I adore you.”

A volunteer leader of a small local advocacy group (she didn’t want to be named because she didn’t discuss the incidents with the organization’s leadership team) was slightly older than Di Caro, unlike many of the women DCist talked to for this story. But there was a different dynamic at play: Part of her organization’s success depended on press coverage, which “was never something we could take for granted,” she says.

Di Caro sent her direct messages on Twitter in September 2017, more than a year after he was warned by station leadership not to “engage in unprofessional behavior while representing WAMU.”

The two exchanged messages and he invited her for a drink. She says she saw a drink with a transportation reporter as a way to have a stronger relationship with the media and raise the group’s profile.

After she said yes, “within 24 hours it got very intense,” she says. “The flirting became very heavy-handed and I’m like, what am I supposed to do? There was always this power imbalance of, if I say no, if I blow him off, he doesn’t ever have to talk to my organization again. He can get quotes from whoever he wants.”

In an email exchange reviewed by DCist, Di Caro sought a sexual relationship with the volunteer leader: “At the moment, I am not seeing (euphemism for having sex with) anyone, but I want that to change,” he wrote to the advocate (the parenthetical is his own). He also heavily implied that he’d had a casual sexual relationship with a source the year before — “We wound up having many ‘off the record’ get-togethers, so it is workable,” he wrote — and stressed the importance of keeping their meeting a secret.

While the email was sent from a personal account, his email signature states his role as a transportation reporter at WAMU, followed by the tagline, “We’re live. We’re local. We’re Washington’s NPR station.”

Martin Di Caro publicly said that his resignation from WAMU, offices pictured here, was due to exhaustion. However, many in the journalism and transportation policy world wondered whether there was something else at play.Rachel Kurzius / DCist

‘When the #MeToo movement came out, my first thought went to Martin Di Caro’

Sexual harassment has been illegal for decades, but the #MeToo movement in the fall of 2017 gave many people a new vocabulary to talk about the experiences that had long felt wrong, even if they couldn’t articulate why.

“When the #MeToo movement came out, my first thought went to Martin Di Caro,” says Harder, the former WAMU intern.

The movement resulted in some huge reckonings in journalism, including in public radio. Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior vice president for news, resigned in November 2017 following accusations of sexual harassment, for which he apologized and accepted “full responsibility.” David Sweeney, NPR’s chief news editor, left later that month following formal complaints of sexual harassment lodged by female journalists.

The following month, Di Caro announced on Twitter that, “with mixed emotions,” he would leave WAMU. He sent an email announcing his departure to his colleagues on Dec. 15, 2017, saying it would be his last day in the office “since I am on vacation the next two weeks.” He did not have another job lined up.

“I had this great relief when he was off the local beat,” says Whittier, Councilmember Mary Cheh’s spokesperson. “I honestly feel like I was held captive in this pattern with him for years because of the nature of how our working lives intersected.”

Di Caro publicly said that the resignation was due to exhaustion after years of constant coverage. However, many in the journalism and transportation policy world wondered whether there was something else at play in his abrupt departure. The circumstances of his resignation remain unclear.

Adrienne Lawrence, attorney and author of Staying in the Game: The Playbook for Beating Workplace Sexual Harassment, says, speaking generally, that “too often are harassers afforded the opportunity to leave on their own terms, and as a result, avoid having the stigma associated with their behavior follow them.” She adds that this practice “lets dangerous people continue to navigate society and go unchecked.”

About five months after leaving WAMU, Di Caro joined Bloomberg as a news anchor on a contract basis.

This July, WAMU has faced a reckoning about management practices and Yore’s tenure, as employees reflected on why so many staffers of color have left the station. Former employee Oliver-Ash Kleine tweeted a series of claims about their experiences at WAMU, writing that Yore “knew about a serial sexual harasser in his newsroom and did nothing about it or at least didn’t do anything about it for years.”

A week later, they named Martin Di Caro as the person they were referencing, after writing that “it’s come to my attention he is still engaging in this kind of behavior.”

Kleine included screenshots that showed a 2012 message from Di Caro in Facebook messenger in which he told them that “every woman I’ve dated this year was in her 20s … there are MANY in this city … and I ain’t shy.” (Kleine was in their early twenties at the time.)

Women began responding to Kleine’s tweet with their own “Martin stories.”

That day, Di Caro defended himself in an email to former WAMU colleagues obtained by DCist: “I forcefully deny … the claim that I mistreated any of my WAMU colleagues. I did not create a hostile work environment at WAMU.”

He called Kleine’s posts a “public Twitter campaign to attack my reputation.” He went on to write that “[Oliver-Ash] has posted screen shots of what I believed were harmless conversations with a friend and colleague from several years ago. These are now being made to look nefarious.”

He also offered “a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to those of you who reached out to privately offer support and defend my character.”

However, Di Caro had a different message in a separate email sent to the former WMAL news assistant he had invited back to his apartment. It was sent the day after Kleine’s tweets named Di Caro.

“I am reaching out to you today to apologize unequivocally for being so obnoxious and rude to you when we worked together,” he wrote in the email, which was obtained by DCist. “I remember not fully understanding why you were offended by my actions — a terrible oversight on my part. Thus, I offer you an unconditional acknowledgement that I was wrong and I should have known better.”

The woman says that, when she first received the email from Di Caro, she assumed it was the result of some kind of soul searching. Then, she saw the multiple public accusations against him on social media, and her perspective on his note shifted: “I realized the apology was not in good faith.”

Whittier says that “reading everyone else’s experiences, all I could think of was, ‘Oh my God — me too.’ ”

The local news reporter who hadn’t heard about Di Caro in a whisper network had previously thought Di Caro’s comments about her appearance and late-night texts in 2018 and 2019 were isolated incidents. Kleine’s tweets and the responses gave her a different understanding. Since then, she has been reflecting on what makes a good journalist.

“When people evaluate the worth of a reporter, I would love for them to take into account how they treat people with less power,” she says. “It impacts your reporting,” noting that it might, for instance, affect whether a journalist takes a tip about sexual harassment seriously, or even receives the tip in the first place, because of their reputation.

It also has long-lasting impacts for the people on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior.

After years of trying to downplay how her interactions with Di Caro had affected her, Whittier says “my natural physical reaction has made me recognize how much it did bother me. I was driving and heard him on the radio [on Bloomberg] and my body seized up for a moment. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s him.’ And I switched the station as quickly as I could.”

This story was reported under the guidance of editors Natalie Delgadillo and Rachel Sadon. WAMU’s senior executives did not review this story prior to publication.

31 Jul 11:52

DOJ Says Cruel And Unusual Punishment Is Alive And Well In Alabama Prisons

by Tim Cushing

The DOJ's Civil Rights Division has wrapped up an Obama-era probe into the Alabama prison system. Initiated in 2016, the investigation covers 13 prisons in the state, containing nearly 17,000 prisoners. What the DOJ found was widespread deployment of excessive force and a resolute lack of concern for inmates' well-being. (via Huffington Post)

The report [PDF] notes that the Constitution (indirectly) gives inmates the right to be free from violence from other prisoners. The correctional facilities investigated here did almost nothing to prevent inmate-on-inmate violence.

After carefully reviewing the evidence, the Department concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe that conditions at Alabama’s prisons violate the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and that these violations are pursuant to a pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of rights protected by the Eighth Amendment. In particular, the Department informed Alabama that it had reasonable cause to believe that Alabama routinely violates the constitutional rights of prisoners housed in Alabama’s prisons by failing to protect them from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and by failing to provide safe and sanitary conditions. The serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision, and overcrowding, contribute to and exacerbate these constitutional violations.

Inmates also have the right to be free from excessive force. The pattern of excessive force deployment in Alabama correctional facilities continued right up to the DOJ's closing of its investigation.

In October 2019, correctional officers at Donaldson used force against a prisoner, resulting in his death. As part of the autopsy, an ADOC investigator informed a coroner that, after an officer opened his cell, the prisoner rushed toward another prisoner carrying two prison-made weapons. [...] The prisoner eventually went to the ground face down and officers reported that the prisoner concealed a knife between his upper torso and the floor. Numerous prisoner-witnesses, however, reported that correctional officers continued to strike the prisoner after he dropped any weapons and posed no threat. The prisoner was airlifted to a hospital due to the extent of his injuries. [...] The level of force used caused the prisoner to sustain multiple fractures to his skull, including near his nose, both eye sockets, left ear, left cheekbone, and the base of his skull, many of which caused extensive bleeding in multiple parts of his brain. The autopsy listed 16 separate and distinct injuries to the prisoner’s head and neck, in addition to multiple fractured ribs and bleeding around a kidney.

Two months later, in December 2019, a prisoner at Ventress died after the use of force by staff. The autopsy revealed that the prisoner died from blunt force trauma to the head. He sustained multiple areas of intracranial bleeding, fractures of his nose and left eye socket, and had at least six teeth knocked out. ADOC personnel informed hospital medical personnel that the injuries occurred after the prisoner fell from a bunk bed. Two correctional officers were placed on mandatory leave while ADOC investigated the circumstances surrounding the death.

The DOJ says Alabama's Department of Corrections documented 1,800 uses of force in 2017 alone. Hardly any of those were investigated. Those that did result in investigations almost never resulted in corrective action or further institutional review. Half of the prisons reviewed either referred one or zero uses of force for further investigation. And despite the fact that one prison (Bullock) had more than half the referrals (55%) despite making up only 6% of the total referred, no further investigation of the prison itself was ever initiated.

There's a distressingly long section in the report that lists documented uses of excessive force by correctional officers. Here's some brief lowlights from the DOJ's investigation:

In September 2019, a lieutenant at Ventress lifted a handcuffed prisoner up off the ground and slammed him on a concrete floor several times, knocking him unconscious. The prisoner was unable to breathe on his own, was intubated, and taken to an outside hospital, where medical personnel administered CPR several times to keep the prisoner alive.


In December 2018, a correctional officer brutally hit, kicked, and struck a handcuffed prisoner with an expandable baton in the Ventress medical unit. Two nurses saw the officer beat the prisoner, and two other nurses could hear the beating from adjacent rooms. The prisoner did not antagonize the officer before the beating and his hands were handcuffed behind his back. During the beating, all four of the nurses heard the officer yell something to the effect of, “I am the reaper of death, now say my name!” and the prisoner begged the officer to kill him. At one point, a nurse observed the officer place his palms against the wall and his right foot on the side of the prisoner’s face to grind the prisoner’s head into the floor...


The prisoner was then taken into the medical unit where he continued to thrash and gyrate his hips. The nurse believed the prisoner was unable to control his actions because he was under the influence of an illicit substance. The prisoner then fell from the examination table to the floor as the nurse tried to obtain his vital signs. The first sergeant threatened to kill the prisoner if he did not control his movements. While thrashing, the prisoner struck the sergeant’s boot. In response, the sergeant kicked the prisoner several times in the stomach and chest. Another sergeant then took a shoe and hit the prisoner multiple times in the genitals.

This goes on for nearly five pages. The DOJ points out the prisons are doing nothing to control this excessive force deployment and appear to be wholly uninterested in any form of accountability. This impression holds up under scrutiny. The DOJ investigators were stonewalled by uncooperative Departments of Corrections officials and officers nearly every step of the way.

For the June 2017 through April 2018 period, ADOC refused to produce any attachments to the incident reports, even though the attachments include critical information, including the initial, institution-level use of force investigations completed by captains or wardens, photographs documenting the aftermath of uses of force, and witness statements. ADOC also produced only I&I investigative files for closed investigations. Throughout the investigation, ADOC also prohibited us from interviewing non-supervisory correctional officers and severely restricted our access to individuals working in prison health care units.

The list of corrective actions recommended is almost longer than the list of atrocities carried out by corrections officers. The DOJ says immediate change is needed, starting with the installation of cameras anywhere corrections officers might interact with inmates, strict controls over access to this recorded footage, an influx of internal investigators, and extensive documentation for every deployment of force. Without this in place, any long-term fixes will be impossible. But given the state's corrections department's unwillingness to cooperate with this investigation, it seems unlikely a bunch of strong words from the federal government will result in immediate -- or lasting -- change.