Rethink the News

Perspective matters.

Reducing news to hard lines and side-taking leaves a lot of the story untold. Progress comes from challenging what we hear and considering different views.


Where does extremism start? In many ways, Germany is a unique laboratory for that question. Recent right-wing anti-immigrant incidents have been more prevalent in the old East Germany than in the west. A study that came out today in Berlin sought to answer why.

Its answer: Under Communism, East Germans became socialized to have an “exaggerated need for harmony, ‘purity’ and order,” the report states. This has resulted in a “prevailing mentality” of xenophobia in places.

The study holds insight into the rise of right-wing populism in places like Hungary, Austria, and Poland. But in that way, it also offers a glimpse of a solution. Socialization is not irreversible, after all. It is the message that a society sends, repeated over years, sinking into thought and becoming action. But that message can be changed. What is needed is a similar commitment to a new message.  

1. Why Washington breathes a little easier

For the past week, Washington has been binging on worst-case scenarios surrounding President Trump and his connections to Russia. But the appointment of Robert Mueller to lead the Justice Department's investigation has brought a new sense of calm.  


The 30 Sec. ReadThe Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel came just as controversy surrounding President Trump was reaching new levels of tension. Questions about connections between Trump associates and Russian officials are serious. Consternation with his abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey is widespread. What Mr. Mueller brings is a reputation for integrity and nonpartisan rigor. The tone in the capital shifted on a dime. The hope now is for calmer days, as a Mueller-led fact-finding effort supplants unnamed sources and unsubstantiated claims. Comparisons with Watergate and talk of impeachment are premature, say experts like Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College. “With Watergate, you had White House officials testifying before Congress, and in court, that there was a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice involving the president and several of his top aides,” says Prof. Schier. “We’re not there yet.”


1. Why Washington breathes a little easier

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel overseeing the agency’s Russia investigation adds a measure of integrity and calm during a time of tumult in Washington.

It cools the nascent – and premature – talk of impeachment that had started to build following President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and reports that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Comey to drop an investigation into the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Mr. Mueller, appointed Wednesday evening by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, brings a sterling reputation for maturity and nonpartisanship to the task of investigating possible collaboration between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government during the 2016 election.

On a more fundamental level, the arrival of Mueller raises hopes that the heated questions in Washington will now be ​addressed by an independent and thorough inquiry – in short, findings of fact, and a chance to get beyond unnamed sources and unsubstantiated claims.

That could allow the nation to pause, get back to the business of government, and put its partisan differences aside while the high-stakes investigation moves forward. The inquiry has no time limit, and could go well beyond a year.

“Whatever Bob Mueller finds will be the product of deep research, probity, and methodology," says Jane Harman, president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Democratic member of Congress. "It's what the country needs to move toward healing."

In fact, the Justice Department’s announcement of Mueller’s new role – as part of an investigation that Trump referred to Thursday as a "witch hunt" – almost immediately changed the tone in a city where pundits and some politicians have been harking back to the Watergate era for comparisons.

In his wild-and-woolly first four months in the Oval Office, Trump has played the outsider disrupting the norms of presidential conduct in ways that have both delighted his fans and alarmed his detractors.

But whether Trump has broken any laws or violated the Constitution is as yet unproved.

And now, the beginnings of a drumbeat toward impeachment by a handful of Trump critics has been tamped down by the Mueller appointment. Even before the former director’s return as special counsel, experts cautioned against getting ahead of the facts about Trump, including suggestions that he may have engaged in potentially impeachable actions, such as obstruction of justice.

Watergate comparisons premature

“I think we’re a little ahead of the evidence right now,” says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Professor Schier also cautions against leaping to comparisons with Watergate, the scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon.

“With Watergate, you had White House officials testifying before Congress and in court that there was a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice involving the president and several of his top aides – not just talk, not just a sentence or a fragment of a sentence, but a series of coordinated conspiratorial actions,” says Schier. “We’re not there yet.”

President Nixon, in fact, was never impeached; he resigned before the full House could vote on articles of impeachment approved by that chamber’s Judiciary Committee. Only two presidents have been impeached, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Both were acquitted by the Senate, where the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict.

Impeachment, unlike a court case, is a political process. The Constitution lists “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as offenses worthy of removing a president, vice president, or other “civil officers of the United States” from office. Members of Congress interpret those requirements however they wish.

But in reality, the law also plays a central role, says Jens Ohlin, a law professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Those debates about whether or not something is a high crime or a misdemeanor – those take place in a legal context,” says Professor Ohlin. “I think it’s a function of our highly legalized culture – not just our political culture, but our Culture with a capital C – that there’s a hunger for the precision that the law offers.”

Many questions of public policy are often articulated by average citizens in legal terms, he says.

“They want to know, what does the law say about this, and what are standards that are articulated in the law, and what would a court do if it had this question before it,” Ohlin says. “For that reason, a lot of the discussion that people have been having is, would this constitute obstruction of justice under one of the various federal statutes that criminalizes obstruction of justice.”

Trump’s firing last week of Mr. Comey raised the question of obstruction of justice, especially after Trump acknowledged in an NBC interview that he was considering “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey. Another possible example of obstruction of justice arose this week in a leaked memo by Comey that said Trump had asked him to end the federal investigation on Mr. Flynn. He faces scrutiny over financial ties to Russia and Turkey, among other issues.

Sighs of relief from GOP

On Capitol Hill, Mueller’s appointment as special counsel brought sighs of relief from Republicans and a sense of "finally!" from Democrats.

Daily crises from the White House have rolled onto the Hill with the force of successive tidal waves, seeming to overwhelm lawmakers at times. For Republicans, the multiple crises have become a huge distraction from their agenda, including health-care and tax reform. They worry that their opportunity to get things done is slipping away.

Democrats have been sounding alarms about Americans losing confidence in their government, and US allies losing confidence in Washington – especially after reports that Trump had shared highly classified information with top Russian officials during an Oval Office visit last week. Democratic lawmakers have urged Republican colleagues to “stand up” to the president and “put country above party.”

Some liberal activists remain unconvinced that the Mueller appointment is enough. Indeed, as an executive branch appointee, Mueller can be fired by Trump – just as Comey was. But if that were to take place, the comparison to Watergate would draw ever closer. That may not be an analogy Trump wants to keep invoking.

Trump nonetheless lashed out Thursday via Twitter and in a press conference against the FBI investigation now led by Mueller.

Trump also engaged in “what-aboutism”: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” he tweeted twice in three hours.

Trump did not provide examples of “illegal acts” by either his 2016 campaign opponent and his predecessor’s administration, though critics of both have a ready list, including: Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and allegations of “pay to play” during her time as secretary of State; and, under President Obama, the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups for extra scrutiny.

Outside the White House though, many in Washington echo the view that an orderly inquiry can bring a needed settling to the Washington drama.

"A lot of people will find lots of comfort” in Mueller’s appointment, said Sen. Ben Sasse (R) of Nebraska, speaking at a Washington Post forum Wednesday night. In a city that "doesn't work," Senator Sasse said, the FBI can become one institution that regains the confidence of Americans.

"I want the Bureau to be an institution that the American people can trust,” he said. “I want … the men and women who are public servants in that institution [to] know they're doing meaningful work for their neighbors. And it needs to be protected from politicization."

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2. Iran’s regime offers a push-pull moment for democracy

Iranian democracy is getting a fascinating test. Elections are somewhat managed affairs with certain lines that usually aren't crossed. But this election has broken rules, raising the question: How much democracy is the Iranian regime really ready for?

A supporter of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for a second term in office, displayed his poster at rally in downtown Tehran.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

The 30 Sec. ReadIn the heat of Iran’s especially nasty presidential campaign, incumbent Hassan Rouhani broke a taboo to publicly recall a dark chapter in the country’s history. His hard-line challenger, he said, knew only “death and imprisonment,” a reference to the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. His opponent said Mr. Rouhani, a champion of the historic 2015 nuclear deal as a path to prosperity, had deceived and starved Iranians. The unusual candor has inspired thousands of Iranians to pour into the streets to demonstrate their support for one side or the other in this tight race. It has also sharpened the precarious balancing act of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seeks to simultaneously allow and contain dissent. He wants enough democratic expression to validate the Islamic Republic, while stopping short of undermining it. However managed the political process may be, there is no question Iranian voters have a stark choice Friday between a reformer, Rouhani, and someone he says will worsen Iran’s ties abroad and undermine freedoms.


2. Iran’s regime offers a push-pull moment for democracy

From the lecterns of mass rally stages, and during live television debates, Iran’s presidential candidates have crossed multiple regime red lines in their bids to cast opponents as dangerously unfit for office.

Even by the rough-and-tumble tradition of Iranian politics, the run-up to the May 19 election has been especially combative, engulfing presidential contenders with starkly opposing worldviews in charges of lying, corruption, and misrule, and underscoring the deep polarization of Iranian society.

Energized by the electoral fisticuffs, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets each night, with activists from both sides – either seeking change, or fearing it – expressing their views in noisy traffic jams.

“I am leaving nothing to chance,” says Sina, a master’s student in civil engineering from Tehran, who skipped voting in the last election but won’t miss this one. A hard-line victory, he says, will worsen Iran’s ties abroad, “collapse the economy, and undermine freedoms.”

Iran’s tightly controlled political space always expands before an election, but never before with such vicious personal attacks, uncensored exchanges that have cast a shadow over the reputation of the Islamic Republic.

Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani accuses his hard-line opponent, cleric Ebrahim Raisi, of knowing only “death and imprisonment” – an oblique reference to Mr. Raisi’s role in ordering the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, an event usually taboo to talk about in Iran – and charges that victory for Raisi will stymie budding freedoms and return Iran to a dark period of isolation.

Raisi, in turn, accuses Mr. Rouhani – who championed the 2015 nuclear deal with Western powers as providing a path to prosperity – of “deceiving” Iranians with unfulfilled promises, “starving people” by neglecting the poor, and betraying Iran’s revolutionary credentials by selling out to the West. Raisi’s supporters chant, “Death to the liar!” at campaign rallies.

The blunt violation of taboos dramatizes the knife-edge balance demanded of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as he seeks to simultaneously allow and contain dissent, ensuring enough democratic expression to validate the regime with a majority-accepted choice for president, while stopping short of undermining it.

Polls indicate a close race, with Rouhani ahead, but with his early lead slipping.

Call for a high turnout

Mr. Khamenei has called for a mass voter turnout on election day, despite the risks that higher turnout often yields more support for reform-minded candidates. Ever since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, a high turnout has been equated with regime legitimacy, whatever the outcome.

But at the same time, Khamenei warned that anyone who did not accept the result would receive a “slap in the face.” On Wednesday he praised Iranians for creating “peace and security” before the vote, but said it was “likely that some individuals” might try to break the law.

In a veiled jibe at Rouhani, he also said the fierce rhetoric of the campaign “did not suit the dignity of the Iranian nation.” And, in a reference to the months of street protests that followed the disputed vote in 2009, which were suppressed with a heavy-handed crackdown, he added that Iran had “learned from the experiences of the past” that “unlawfulness can be so harmful.”

But the perennial tension between the republican and theocratic pillars of the Islamic Republic means there are limits as to how much influence Khamenei can exert. That is one reason, analysts say, for the signs of high-level anxiety over the vote.

“The dynamics of Iranian politics make it very, very difficult for the leader to come out and publicly take a side in this or any election,” says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

“That ambiguity creates opportunities for voters to make a statement about the direction they want the Islamic Republic to go, even if that is not the direction the leader or the establishment would like it to go,” Ms. Farhi says.

Still, there is apathy

In that vein, Rouhani has cast himself as an anti-establishment candidate – or at least, as the anti-hard-line candidate – in his bid to woo undecided voters and convince the 40 percent of Iran’s 55 million eligible voters who often don’t show up to make the effort.

“Most agree that if people go and vote, Rouhani would win,” says Farhi. “And that’s one of the ways he’s trying to motivate people to vote, [by raising] the possibility that Iran will be re-securitized, whether that’s true or not.”

Still, there is no shortage of apathy.

“It’s just a show, nothing is going to change,” says Tehran toy shop owner Amirali. “I’m just a businessman, I don’t care about these games.”

Yet those in the game say the choice is stark. Rouhani says a second four-year term would enable Iranians to “continue down the path of freedom of speech,” and to “continue engaging in honorable interaction with the world.”

By contrast, he warned last month, a hard-line victory would “begin confrontation with the world and bring back the ominous shadow of war.”

“We’ve entered this election to tell those who practice violence and extremism that your era is over,” Rouhani said at one rally last week.

“The people will say no to those who over the course of 38 years only executed and jailed, those who cut out tongues and sewed mouths shut, [who] banned the pen and banned the picture,” Rouhani said at another rally. “Please don’t even breathe the word freedom, for it shames freedom."

Raisi rejects 'scaremongering'

The president was referring to Raisi’s position as a judge on a four-member panel in the late 1980s, which came to be known as the “death committee.” It carried out two fatwas, or religious injunctions, by the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, that targeted for execution several thousand jailed members of the opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq, and “apostates.”

This week, Raisi rejected the “scaremongering,” and defended his past actions as a young prosecutor: “My record is removing the ominous shadow of terrorism over the country. Have you forgotten it?” Raisi told a Tehran rally.

On the campaign trail itself, there has been no holding back. Three lengthy, live televised debates between the six approved candidates – winnowed down by the Guardian Council from 1,636 who registered to run – turned into a spectacle of mud-slinging and character assassination.

While each tried to portray themselves as populists with a common touch, they accused each other of being corrupt elitists who have forsaken revolutionary ideals.

“After this election mudslinging, and worse … the reaction of the people is, ‘Well, all of them are thieves, why should I vote for these people?’” says a veteran Iranian analyst in Tehran, who asked not to be named.

“In the back of their minds, people always had this pessimism about people in power, that they are dishonest, after their own personal interests,” says the analyst. “But suddenly [hearing that] coming out of the mouths of the highest people in power on TV? This was unexpected.”

Applause lines

That resonated with voter Zahra, a 30-year-old sales rep for a food company who wears a loose headscarf.

“Crossing red lines is good, it helps people know their candidates better,” she says. “Even indifferent people now feel it’s necessary to vote, not to let things get worse, at least.”

In his campaign, Rouhani has spoken against morality police squads arresting young people on the streets. This week he lashed out at state-run TV for what he called selective analysis of the debates that unsubtly favored his opponent. He said the era when state broadcasters “could dominate the people’s mind is over.”

And in his final campaign rally, on May 17, Rouhani told the Revolutionary Guard and Basij ideological militia to get out of politics, and on voting day to “stay in their own place for their own work.” Both forces were used to quell the unrest in 2009.

Loud cheers erupt whenever Rouhani mentions his popular “brother,” former President Mohammad Khatami, whose images and words have been banned from the media because of his support for the 2009 Green Movement.

Mr. Khatami’s last-minute backing in 2013 was instrumental to Rouhani’s narrow victory, and Khatami called on supporters to vote for him again, “for freedom of thought … rule of law [and] human rights.”

Expecting the unexpected

Officials have taken steps to ensure that this freewheeling campaign doesn’t translate into post-election unrest over the result. Plainclothes security forces reportedly have been deployed, and human rights groups say a number of pro-Rouhani and reformist journalists and activists have been arrested in the past six months.

Last month, a dozen administrators of Telegram – a social media messaging app popular in Iran, and used for mobilizing activists – reportedly were arrested. A Telegram voice communicator was also blocked by the judiciary, because it was deemed to be “against national security.”

One night this week, the veteran analyst saw riot police deployed at an intersection where protesters often gather in Tehran.

“I look around, I don’t feel that anything is going to happen, I don’t see signs of something brewing,” says the analyst. But the police deployment – and warnings from Khamenei that he would “confront” any challenge to the results – “is an indication of how nervous people in security are about the situation,” he says. “They are expecting the unexpected.”

A special correspondent in Tehran contributed to this report.

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3. Can intelligence agencies take political roles?

The tension between Mr. Trump and his intelligence agencies is something more than just a power play. Intelligence agencies are 'the skunk at the picnic.' They exist to give the president news he might not like to hear. That puts the current situation in a different light: It's about whether the president is willing to accept dissent.

Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, Langley, Va.
Larry Downing/Reuters/File

The 30 Sec. ReadKeeping out of politics can be difficult in even the most peaceful days in the spy business. And many new occupants of the West Wing struggle to adjust to the intelligence community’s independent style. But these are not peaceful days in Washington, and the Trump administration has almost from Day 1 been treating the US intelligence establishment as hostile, particularly as the FBI has investigated Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. That is undermining intelligence officials’ ability to do their job, which often entails picking holes in conventional wisdom or policies. “The intelligence community is not loyal,” says former CIA Assistant Director Mark Lowenthal. “We’re the ones telling you why Kim Jong-un isn't giving up his nuclear weapons.” A bigger issue: In politically challenging climates, spies don’t just worry about their job security. Once a briefing ends, the president can do what he wishes with intelligence – which can put at risk the information that goes into that analysis.


3. Can intelligence agencies take political roles?

As Mark Lowenthal climbed the CIA’s ranks, he prided himself on staying level-headed even in tense political moments. But even for the agency’s then assistant director, the 2004 presidential race proved unusually stressful.

When popular CIA Director George Tenet resigned that July after US intelligence leads failed to turn up suspected weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, reports in The Wall Street Journal indicated that CIA rank-and-file officers had begun supporting President Bush’s Democratic rival, John Kerry. White House officials quickly seized on those rumors, accusing the agency of playing politics.

"It was beginning to affect the entire building," says Mr. Lowenthal, who retired from the agency in 2005. "It's hard to go to work when you know that your main client doesn't like you."

Those difficulties seem to be returning to Washington amid a hyper-partisan climate. President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey amid an FBI investigation into suspected Russian interference in November’s election.

It’s the latest episode, after Mr. Trump criticized US intelligence officials for leaking sensitive material, to raise worries that the revelations could make spies more reticent to share their secrets – or uncomfortable analysis – with the Oval Office.

To carry out the bureau's unique mission – providing information to help policymakers protect the US from devastating surprise attacks – intelligence officers must think about the worse case scenario stemming from White House policy. To do that, spies are strictly warned to steer clear of politics to avoid compromising blunt their national security analysis.

“The intelligence community is not loyal,” Lowenthal says. “We're the skunk at the picnic.”

That often means picking holes in conventional wisdom or policies. "We're the ones telling you why Kim Jong-un isn't giving up his nuclear weapons," he adds. 

Meet the new boss

Many new occupants of the West Wing struggle to adjust to the intelligence community's independent style. Trump found out earlier this year, when he asked Mr. Comey to shut down the Russia investigation and the FBI chief refused to pledge his loyalty to the commander-in-chief, according to New York Times reports.

But in politically challenging climates, spies don’t just worry about their job security. Once a briefing ends, the president can do what he wishes with intelligence, which can sometimes even put at risk the information that goes into that analysis.

After a Washington Post report surfaced on Monday that President Trump unveiled highly classified information regarding the Islamic State to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador to the US, experts worried that the commander-in-chief may have damaged relationships with foreign intelligence partners or members of the US spy community by revealing "sources and methods" – human resources and data-gathering techniques – that are critical to the conduct of their work.

“Do you suddenly have qualms about passing intelligence to the White House?” Lowenthal says. “The very fact that intelligence officers might be thinking that is problematic.”

Opportunities for change

But the Trump administration’s recent flare-ups with the intelligence community could be attributed to a broader trend, that comes alongside suspected Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election: The emergence of espionage as an important facet of politics in the digital age.

“Intelligence has historically done its work in the shadows, the only time you’ve seen it in the news is when it fails,” says Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer and director of the Intelligence and Defense Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center. “That long ago has been stripped away. It’s something that’s making everybody uncomfortable.”

Yet despite that discomfort – and the ability for intelligence agencies to draw upon the frenetic pace of the 24-hour news cycle – spy units around the globe have managed to find new ways to get the eyes of elected officials glued to their analysis.

The British government has found success with the creation of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a cabinet-level office developed after World War II that creates standards for intelligence analysis and creates priorities for British spy agencies.

To provide challenging intelligence analysis to a media-consumed president, spy agencies could take a page from journalists, too. While junior analysts focus on day-to-day reports and senior analysts look at long-term forecasts, experts think smaller, tightly-knit units could take on a larger role in collecting and analyzing intelligence that looks at both angles. 

"Maybe you create these units that do both simultaneously,” says Stephen Marrin, an associate professor at James Madison University and a former CIA analyst.

In 2010, as director of intelligence for the US mission in Afghanistan, then-Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn proposed deploying 2,000 intelligence analysts to the battlefield to report on the conflict as a newspaper reporter might do. 

"We were so focused on driving our intelligence system to collect on the enemy," Mr. Flynn told The Atlantic. "We were missing these vital components of information that were out there. And that’s what I wanted." That could have relevance to the current White House. Trump counted Flynn as a close confidante before his dismissal as US national security adviser in February.

Safety valve

In other areas of the intelligence community outside of the FBI and CIA, there are areas for political dissent that are sometimes welcomed. The State Department, for instance, maintains an internal “Dissent Channel” that the agency allows all employees to use – including those in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research – without facing potential retribution. It’s a feedback outlet that some of the other 17 US intelligence agencies could implement to surface their concerns.

Though the CIA conducts extensive exercises designed to vet its analysis for holes, a dissent channel might allow a wider system of checks and balances to be implemented inside spy agencies when internal probes, such as the Russia investigation, go awry.

"Intra-agency checks, like the Dissent Channel, help recreate some checks and balances within the executive, giving rise to more informed discussion and innovative solutions," Neal Katyal, former acting US solicitor general, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year. "Agencies with differing missions — like, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Commerce Department — enrich the policy debate every day."

And honoring those differences of opinion, Mr. Katyal said, might help cut down on US government leaks, a problem that Trump continually cites. "Leaking, particularly by whistle-blowers, is predictable when the executive branch does not heed dissent," he wrote. "One thing we know about government after the New Deal is that checks and balances through whistle-blowing is terrible policy."

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Special Report

4. Another run at an American tap-water crisis

How is it that people could have foul, potentially dangerous water coming out of their taps and not complain? This is a parable of coal and poverty in one corner of Appalachia, where people have learned to shut their mouths ... and buy bottled water. 


The 30 Sec. ReadThe tap water smells weird. It tastes bad. It regularly exceeds limits set for certain chemicals considered to increase the risk of cancer. And it’s been like that for years. This is not the story of a community in an impoverished African country, or even Flint, Mich. This is eastern Kentucky, where a coal boom brought millions into the state’s coffers, but very little has gone into shoring up basic infrastructure. But in a place where Big Coal holds so much sway, few are willing to publicly share their grievances. “People are afraid to complain about the water,” says local environmental activist Mickey McCoy, because they fear losing their jobs or severance packages. “Or their third cousin might be fired. It runs deep.” Thanks to some active constituents, however, it’s now on the radar of state Sen. Ray Jones, who has introduced legislation to give the Kentucky Public Service Commission greater leverage over water districts. “It’s not going to be resolved overnight … but there needs to be a plan.” 

Martin County (Ky.) Water District testing results

SOURCE: Kentucky Division of Water
Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley

4. Another run at an American tap-water crisis

T.J. Fannin, sitting on his porch as the sun sets, speaks fondly of the 27 years he spent working in nearby coal mines. But despite the hard labor that fueled a coal boom and sent millions of dollars into Kentucky’s coffers, he says he and his neighbors lack a basic amenity: clean tap water. 

“[O]n the TV you see someone go to the faucet and get a drink of water, and it just makes me mad cause, you know, we can’t do that,” says Mr. Fannin, who buys two or three 24-packs of bottled water a month for drinking and cooking. “There’s an odor to the water…. It’s just like stagnant water [that] comes out of the bottom of a pool.”

It’s no secret that the decline of coal has hit the mountain spine of Appalachia hard. But it's less well known that an amenity of life most Americans take for granted isn’t a given, more than 50 years after Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “war on poverty” here in Martin County, Ky.

And what really gets Fannin’s goat, he says, is that residents here face far higher water bills than in nearby counties. This, despite frequent warnings that the local water has exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for certain chemicals.

“We should have a top-notch water system, septic system, schools, roads,” given all the proceeds from coal mining over the years, says the former miner. “We got this 4-lane [highway] down here and that’s basically all we got.” 

In a place where political distrust runs high and funds are scarce, little has been done to improve the county’s water quality or infrastructure, as reported by the Ohio Valley Resource's Benny Becker in January.

Local officials argue that the water issue has been blown out of proportion by a handful of outspoken residents, whose activism sends the water district jumping through bureaucratic hoops instead of fixing a creaking system. For the rest of the community, relying solely on bottled water is seen as just a way of life, not a reason to protest.

Two students hanging out in the high school parking lot say their parents have always had a family rule against drinking from the tap. Becky, a grocery cashier in nearby Warfield, says she hasn’t consumed the county’s water since 1999. Neither a hardware-store owner nor a retired butcher can remember the last time they drank from the tap.

“There is a fundamental breakdown in the expectation of democracy in places like Appalachia,” says Alexander Gibson, director of Appalshop, a media organization in Whitesburg, Ky. “They have observed that a complaint to the government disappears like the morning fog.”

Exceeded EPA limits repeatedly since 2005

In the bowels of the Martin County Water District offices, Joe Hammond sits in front of an Excel sheet, a map of the county’s water lines taped on the wall above him. 

Piles of paper teeter beside his elbows, while packs of bottled water are stacked next to the filing cabinets. He says the girls in the office drink that, not him. As far as he’s concerned, the local water is fine. 

“I raised two fine young children with that water,” says Mr. Hammond, the supervisor of the water district. 

But Lee Mueller, who was also born here, became concerned about the water when he moved back in the 1980s.

“I had written stories about it for years,” says Mr. Mueller, who served as the Lexington-Herald Leader’s eastern Kentucky bureau chief for three decades. He blames the water quality for his own cancer diagnosis. “I didn’t really get involved with water until we were getting notices of violation that were two months old from the water district that they were required by law to inform residents that they had exceeded contaminant levels for various cancer-causing agents.”

According to Kentucky Division of Water records, Martin County’s water system has exceeded EPA limits for certain chemicals in its drinking water multiple times every year since 2005. Martin County was out of compliance in eight of the last 10 tests for haloacetic acid (HAA5) limits and 6 of the last 10 tests for total trihalomethanes (TTHM) limits.

Martin County (Ky.) Water District testing results. Source: Kentucky Division of Water
Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley/Staff

These chemicals – by-products of chlorine treatment intended to make the water palatable – aren’t considered as dangerous as the lead that laced Flint’s water in Michigan. But the notifications sent to residents by the water district warn that extended exposure increases the risk of cancer.

Gail Brion, an engineering professor at the University of Kentucky who previously worked for the EPA, says the agency sets conservative limits for HAA5s and TTHMs. But an ethical controversy arises, says Professor Brion, when the government gives you no choice but to pay for bottled water in order to avoid this health risk.

Funding and priorities

The highest elected official in Martin County, Judge Executive Kelly Callaham, can be found in his corner office in the county’s newest courthouse. When asked about his county’s water quality, Judge Callaham leans forward in his chair and waves one hand in the air.

“You could drink four gallons of our water every day for 70 years and you have a chance of getting cancer. Well, hell, if you eat hot dogs, read what’s in hot dogs. You could eat four hot dogs a day for 70 years and you probably wouldn’t last 70 years,” says Callaham. “ ‘Could cause cancer,’ and ‘will cause cancer’ is a whole different deal.”

Callaham blames the EPA-mandated notices and the local newspaper, the Mountain Citizen, for what he considers unnecessary hysteria.

Editor Gary Ball has published a steady stream of articles on the water issue, as well as Callaham’s alleged misuse of county finances, including the $10 million courthouse building. “The system has been mismanaged for years,” Mr. Ball says. 

Kelly Callaham, the judge executive of Martin County, Ky., is finishing out his final term as the county's top elected official. He has come under fire for building a new government center in Inez, Ky., where his office is located.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

Kentucky began issuing a “severance” tax on coal companies in 1972 to assist economic development. According to state records obtained by the Monitor, out of $34.5 million in coal severance funds disbursed since 2001, Martin County spent $7.3 million – or about 21 percent – on sewer and water improvements.

Comparatively, state Senator Ray Jones – who represents five counties including Martin County – says his home of Pike County spent 70 to 75 percent of its severance tax funds on water and sewer infrastructure.

“A lot of it comes down to funding,” says Senator Jones, “but a lot of it comes down to priorities.”

Among other projects, Martin County spent about $3.3 million in coal severance funds on the new courthouse, and another $7 million to build the Inez Business Center. Local critics say these funds could have made a big dent in repairing Martin County’s water system, with estimates of total renovation running between $13 and $15 million.

The water treatment plant in Inez, Ky., was built in 1968 to serve 600 people but today serves about 3,500. Residents of the city and the surrounding area of Martin County say they routinely get notices from the water district that certain chemicals are present in their tap water, extended exposure to which could increase the risk of cancer.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

Coal severance revenues have plummeted in recent years. In 2016, Martin County received only 12 percent of what it got in 2009. Today the revenues provide just enough to cover the bond payments on the new courthouse.

Callaham says he wouldn’t have built it if he knew the coal severance money was going to run out so quickly.

But Darren Sammons with the Kentucky Department of Local Government says, “[W]e have been advising local officials for years to expect lower coal severance revenues and to budget accordingly.” 

A system built for 600, serving 3,500

Meanwhile, Hammond is left to address the water district’s manifold problems as best he can.

Martin County’s water system – including a treatment plant – was built in 1968 for 600 customers. It currently serves 3,500. This expansion of lines in eastern Kentucky’s rocky hills created an underground system susceptible to holes and line breaks – and therefore water loss.

The EPA estimates the average water loss in the US to be 15 percent per month, but Martin County has been under investigation by the Kentucky Public Service Commission (PSC) in recent years for water loss rates greater than 60 percent.

Joe Hammond, supervisor of the Martin County Water District in his Inez, Ky., oversees a system built for just one-sixth the number of customers it currently serves.
Christa Case Bryant/The Christian Science Monitor

When there’s a problem, Martin County residents often call the local newspaper instead of the water district, circumventing Hammond. 

The newspaper goes directly to the PSC, which responds to the paper’s complaints by issuing Hammond extensive paperwork, which he says diverts resources away from dealing with customers’ problems.

“I’m still working on things they have asked for” – back in June 2016, he says. 

'People are afraid to complain'

A Facebook group called Martin County Water Warriors, which has more than 1,000 members, regularly posts updates on water quality issues – everything from photos of corroded water heaters to updates about the next hearing on Martin County's water (June 1 in Frankfort, Ky.).

Nina and Mickey McCoy, longtime environmental activists, say they have also tried to organize citizen meetings to demand action on the city’s water quality, but with little effect. Once, they ordered dozens of pizzas and not a single person showed up. 

In a place where Big Coal holds so much sway, few are willing to publicly share their grievances.

“People are afraid to complain about the water,” says Mr. McCoy, because they fear losing their jobs or severance packages. “Or their third cousin might be fired. It runs deep.”

There’s also a pervasive feeling that speaking up won’t accomplish anything. 

“The government just doesn’t seem to work on this level for the people,” says Dan Preece, a world history teacher at Sheldon Clark High School – who is willing to speak on the record only because he is tenured.   

“When the kids see over time what does get spent here ... you see a new courthouse built, but we can’t get the water fixed,” says Mr. Preece. “They don’t feel like they matter, like this is not a problem worth solving.”

But Jones, for one, is working on solving it.  

“It needs to be a collaborative effort between local officials, local citizens, and state officials,” says Jones, who in February introduced legislation to give the PSC greater leverage over water districts. “It’s not going to be resolved overnight… but there needs to be a plan.” 

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting.

( 1747 words )

5. What preschoolers can teach us about cooperation

Guess what? Your 3-year-old kid knows how to share. Honestly. It caught our attention that new research is pointing to humans' deeply ingrained sense that people should help one another.    

Children engage in collaborative play at a preschool in Lexington, Mass. A new study finds that children as young as 3-1/2 understand and value the concept of joint commitments.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File

The 30 Sec. ReadParents and preschool teachers spend a lot of time and effort teaching young children to work together and share, but new research suggests that even very young children already have a complex understanding of cooperation and social obligation. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, matched 72 same-sex pairs of 3-1/2-year-olds and asked them to complete a task that required two people to pull a rope on an apparatus to retrieve a pair of marbles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, preschoolers grew upset when their partners flubbed the task in some way. But researchers were quite surprised to learn that the young subjects were most offended when they felt their partners had abandoned the task for selfish reasons. As one researcher recounted to staff writer Eoin O’Carroll, “We were amazed that 3-year-olds only blamed their partner if she intentionally broke the rules of the cooperative game.... They were fine with it if she was ignorant of the rules, and in fact in this case they taught her the rules.”


5. What preschoolers can teach us about cooperation

If you bail on an activity with a preschooler, you’d better have a good excuse.

That’s because, according to research published this week in the journal Child Development, children as young as three and a half years old understand and value the obligations that accompany joint commitments. The researchers found that children who abandon a cooperative activity for an apparently selfish reason tend to prompt more resentment from their peers than those who quit the task for another reason.

These findings do not just build on a growing body of research suggesting that the very young possess moral capabilities that are more sophisticated than scientists previously thought. They also suggest that the notion of shared obligation is in some ways fundamental to Homo sapiens, the only known animal to create social institutions.

“The kinds of joint commitments we are seeing here in the three-year-olds can be scaled up into legal contracts, in which we mutually pledge to hold up our end of the bargain,” says Margarita Svetlova, a visiting assistant professor at Duke University, who co-authored the study with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “If you really want, you could scale it up to the social contract in general.”

Researchers at Max Planck ran an experiment in which 72 same-sex pairs of three-and-a-half-year-olds were asked to complete a task that required two people to pull a rope on an apparatus to retrieve a pair of marbles.

Members of each pair were randomly assigned the role of “subject” and “partner.” The researchers told the subjects that they would be working with the partner to obtain the marbles. But the partners were there to thwart the plan. Some were instructed to quit the task in exchange for an individual reward, so that they would appear selfish to the subject. Others were trained to use the apparatus in a way that didn’t work, so that they would appear incompetent. And for other partners, the machine was rigged so that they would “break” it.

The researchers found that the subjects reacted more strongly when the partner appeared to abandon the task for selfish reasons. When the partner appeared incompetent, the subject would tend to attempt to teach the partner how to pull the rope.

“We were amazed that three-year-olds only blamed their partner if she intentionally broke the rules of the cooperative game,” says Professor Svetlova. “They were fine with it if she was ignorant of the rules, and in fact in this case they taught her the rules.”

The subjects’ responses, when they inferred their partners’ underlying intentions and respond appropriately, are arguably “the kind of reactions that could be expected of a competent moral agent,” note the researchers in their paper.

“The fact that in this study they react differentially depending on why the partner failed in her role shows that they really understand what they are doing,” Svetlova says.

Humans begin cooperating very early in life. Studies indicate that children as young as 14 months of age tend to help strangers fetch objects that are out of reach, remove obstacles, and attempt to correct mistakes. Rewarding or verbally encouraging children doesn’t seem to increase helping behavior, and in some cases, rewarding kids actually decreases their motivation to help again. Many psychologists and biologists see these tendencies as a sign that evolution has endowed us with a predisposition to cooperate.

“We’re really not solitary individuals,” says Felix Warneken, a Harvard psychologist who studies altruism and cooperation in infants and young children but who did not participate in this study. “We depend on each other maybe more than any other species, maybe with the exception of eusocial insects,” like ants and most bees. 

Viewed this way, it makes sense that a species as adaptable as our own would evolve an instinctive drive to collaborate. “We can basically survive in any part of the world because we’re able to learn from each other,” says Professor Warneken. “It’s not preprogrammed in us how to find food or how to protect ourselves from weather. This is all something we have to learn from each other.”

“When we run studies like this with chimpanzees,” he adds, “we do not see similar performance.”  

The study’s authors also note that these findings may be of some practical use to parents and others who work with preschoolers. 

“One of the lessons for parents is that in many cases you would be a lot better off just letting kids work things out for themselves, even if that doesn’t produce the outcome you yourself would choose for them,” says Svetlova.

“They need to learn the consequences of their actions for their relations with their friends and peers, who, as we show in this study, are perfectly capable of reacting in a morally appropriate way.”

( 762 words )

The Monitor's View

The public’s rising expectations of chief executives


The 30 Sec. ReadA higher percentage of company leaders are being fired for ethical lapses – not necessarily because of more lapses, but because of a greater public demand for honesty and accountability. That’s one finding of a new survey that analyzed successions of chief executive officers at 2,500 of the world’s largest public companies over the past 10 years. The stakes are rising for those in leadership positions, especially as those being led see more examples of bad behavior being punished. There is promise. In another recent global survey, 45 percent of people said that they trust a business more if that business is contributing to the greater good. If more companies sought that greater good, they could more easily instill an ethical culture.


The public’s rising expectations of chief executives

A new global survey about the firing of corporate leaders, which is quite positive about changes in public thought, may help explain some of the heightened scrutiny of President Trump for his recent actions.

The survey was conducted by Strategy&, the consulting business of PricewaterhouseCoopers. It analyzed successions of chief executive officers at 2,500 of the world’s largest public companies over the past 10 years. Those successions that were forced by ethical lapses rose from 3.9 percent in 2007-11 to 5.3 percent in 2012-16. That is an increase of 36 percent worldwide.


In the United States and Canada, the increase was even higher – 102 percent. The forced turnovers rose from 1.6 percent of all successions in 2007-11 to 3.3 percent in 2012-16. (Note that the percentages are lower than those globally.)

The study attributes these increases to a number of trends. New digitals tools, such as “big data” and social media, allow greater insight on companies. The financial crisis of 2007-08 exposed more problems in corporations and brought tighter regulations, such as the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. And as more companies expand worldwide, they run into higher risks of corruption, such as kickbacks and bribery.

But the study’s authors doubt there has been a sharp uptick in unethical behavior. Rather they attribute the increases to a public “more suspicious, more critical, and less forgiving of corporate misbehavior.”

And to prevent reputational damage, companies are becoming better at cleaning up their workplace culture once wrongdoing is exposed. “Our data shows that companies are continuing to improve both their processes for choosing and replacing CEOs and their leadership governance practices – especially in developed countries,” the study states.

The good news is that people may be more aware of lapses in integrity and expect more of leaders in accountability, honesty, and transparency. In other words, the stakes for those who rule over others may have risen, especially as those being ruled see more examples of bad behavior being punished and more executives trying to create an ethical culture in organizations.

In another recent global survey by Edelman public relations firm, 45 percent of people say they trust a business better if it is contributing to the greater good. If more companies sought that greater good, they could more easily instill an ethical culture. The pressure to remove a CEO for lapses can only decline if CEOs become more aware of the public’s rising expectations.

( 396 words )

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Steps to counteract theft


Being vigilant in our thinking makes a difference toward counteracting theft.


Steps to counteract theft

Recently I tried to withdraw some cash from an ATM and was surprised to find that the request was denied. According to bank personnel, the debit card had been compromised through the ATM, and a substantial sum had been stolen from my account, leaving a negative balance. Fortunately I was reimbursed within a short time.

This incident reminded me again to be vigilant in the face of the computer hacking, telephone scams, credit-card fraud, etc., so prevalent in these times. But it also got me to thinking more deeply about how an individual can make a contribution to counteracting such behavior for the benefit of all.

One way I’m finding helpful is to cultivate a deeper sense of good, or God, as the actual governing power in our experience. No one would deny that it appears there are influences at work attempting to persuade individuals to steal from others. Yet an inspired reading of the Bible makes a strong case that God’s power and authority are supreme and can be proved in everyday life.

The Bible teaches – and illustrates throughout its pages – the saving, healing power of the one God as infinite good, as Love, as our lawgiver, the source of all true justice. Also, the Bible implies that God is Mind and Truth (see, for example, Romans 11:34 and Psalms 100:5, respectively). And it points us to a higher concept of man, not as an unavoidably sinful mortal, but as the very image of Truth, governed and motivated by the goodness of the divine Mind.

Mary Baker Eddy, who discovered and founded Christian Science, writes in the Christian Science textbook: “In divine Science, man is the true image of God. The divine nature was best expressed in Christ Jesus, who threw upon mortals the truer reflection of God and lifted their lives higher than their poor thought-models would allow, – thoughts which presented man as fallen, sick, sinning, and dying” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 259).

With so much dishonesty and selfishness apparent in news reports, it can be a struggle to elevate (or even want to elevate) our perception of those who seem bent on stealing. But a greater effort to identify others, as well as ourselves, from a higher standpoint as God’s image – motivated by God alone and including all good from Him – can help.

We appreciate it when someone discerns something good about us beyond what may be readily apparent. It often helps to bring out the best in us. You might conclude, then, that prayer that acknowledges the spiritual truth of someone, when the very opposite seems the case, is beneficial. And I know that also applies to the perpetrators involved in the ATM incident.

Another way we can help counteract theft is to be honest in our own dealings, even in the smallest matters. This puts more weight on the right side in the scale of thought and action. It serves to promote justice and love rather than injustice and selfishness.

Practicing honesty, even in the routine occurrences of daily life, is an indication of what each one of us really is – the sinless, spiritual expression of God. And it’s a good way to contribute to a diminishing of dishonest behavior in society.

( 539 words )


A brilliant view

Participants in glowing vests looked out toward the Sydney Opera House from the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia May 18 during a press preview of a new 'Vivid Climb' tour – offered in Mandarin. The city opens it annual festival of light and sound May 26, with many landmarks participating.
Jason Reed/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )

In Our Next Issue

( May 19th, 2017 )

Thanks for reading. Come back tomorrow for a look at what GOP lawmakers are doing to save their agenda as a chaotic week in the White House winds down. 

Also, a correction: In the May 8 edition, we misstated how many people in the French presidential elections either voted for Marine Le Pen or abstained from voting. A third of those who voted opted for Ms. Le Pen, while a third of all eligible voters either abstained or spoiled their ballot papers in protest.

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