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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.

2018
July
10
Tuesday
David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

A note of apology.

That may be one of the most telling details of the rescue of a dozen Thai boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach.

Nearly three weeks ago, Ekapol Chanthawong led his team on a hike into a cave system where they were trapped by heavy rains. A Thai diver died in the rescue effort. In social media, the coach has been pilloried as irresponsible. On Saturday, the former monk owned the mistake.

Mr. Ekapol apologized to the boys’ parents in a handwritten letter delivered by Thai Navy divers. But it was the forgiving response by Thai parents that stirred conversation in the Monitor’s daily news meeting.

“In the US, there’d be a lawsuit by now,” said one editor. “Teachers are revered in Thailand,” suggested writer Simon Montlake, who has lived and worked there. “Parents aren’t looking for someone to blame, certainly not teachers or a coach.”

That’s a refreshing perspective, no doubt shaped by the high esteem placed on education as a path to progress in Thailand and many other Asian nations.

The last of the boys emerged safely from the cave Tuesday. Soon, we will learn more about how they survived in the dank, dark caverns. But what may linger long after the headlines is a global lesson from Thai parents in how to practice respect and forgiveness.

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Now to our five selected stories, including a rare collaboration to save the greater sage-grouse in Wyoming, an innovative journalism team in Michigan, and teaching life skills to children in Bangladesh.

1. The last 'swing'? High court 'reliability' and rule of law

The question of judicial impartiality may have been a veiled fiction, as some legal scholars say. But the removal of that veil when it comes to Supreme Court and other nominations could result in a polarized judicial branch.

David
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is presented by President Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington July 9.
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Jim Bourg/Reuters

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Like Justice Neil Gorsuch before him, Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a conventional Republican nominee from an unconventional Republican president. His nomination “in many ways is as normal as these kinds of nominations get,” says Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “He easily could have been nominated by John Kasich, Marco Rubio, or any conventional Republican.” Also like Justice Gorsuch, Judge Kavanaugh has been vetted by the Federalist Society, a network of conservative legal scholars. The promise of reliable conservative nominees represents a shift that concerns some court-watchers. Justice Kennedy, a Reagan nominee, gained a reputation as the court’s “swing” justice in recent years, disappointing conservatives by siding with his liberal colleagues on issues such as same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and environmental protection. Kavanaugh – who clerked for Kennedy – would be a more reliable vote, experts say. “The court looks more and more like the other branches, the political branches,” says Carl Tobias, a professor who studies federal judicial selection. “Observers are talking more about the appointing president and whether someone’s a Republican appointee or the Democratic appointee, and I think that’s not healthy for the court.”

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The last 'swing'? High court 'reliability' and rule of law

The nation’s highest court appears poised to take a hard turn toward the ideological right, after President Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court.

A lifelong Washingtonian and a pillar of the conservative legal community there, Judge Kavanaugh’s educational background and extensive legal experience – including two degrees from Yale University and 12 years on the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit – made him an early frontrunner to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement last month. He is Mr. Trump’s second nominee to the Supreme Court – the US Senate confirmed Justice Neil Gorsuch last year – and while a bruising confirmation process awaits, it is likely that he will also be confirmed, further entrenching a conservative majority on the court that could transform American life.

“My judicial philosophy is straightforward. A judge must be independent, and must interpret the law, not make the law,” Kavanaugh said after Trump announced his nomination Monday night. “A judge must interpret statutes as written, and a judge must interpret the Constitution as written, informed by history, and tradition, and precedent.”

Since his presidential campaign, Trump has said he would nominate reliable conservatives to the federal courts. He consulted closely with the Federalist Society, a network of conservative legal scholars, and Justice Gorsuch represents a fulfillment of that promise, having established himself as one of the more conservative members of the high court in his first full term. Experts say Kavanaugh, also vetted and approved by the Federalist Society, is likely to tread a similar path.

But the promise of reliable conservative nominees represents a concerning shift for some court watchers. Justice Kennedy, a Reagan nominee, gained a reputation as the court’s “swing” justice in recent years, siding with his liberal colleagues on issues such as same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and environmental protection. Kavanaugh – who clerked for Kennedy and has a long judicial record favoring a broad view of the First Amendment, deference to presidential power, and restricting the power of federal agencies – would be a more reliable vote for conservatives on many of those issues, experts say.

“The court looks more and more like the other branches, the political branches,” says Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who studies federal judicial selection. “Observers are talking more about the appointing president and whether someone’s a Republican appointee or the Democratic appointee, and I think that’s not healthy for the court.”

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh arrives with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, July 10, 2018.
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Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Another ‘normal’ nominee

As conservative as his record suggests he is – Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, positioned him somewhere between Gorsuch and Chief Justice John Roberts, while Ed Whelan of the National Review likened him to conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – some Republicans voiced doubts about Kavanaugh prior to his nomination.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who sits on the Judiciary Committee that will hold Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, said he could be an “unreliable” jurist. Some conservatives questioned a 2011 decision of his that favored the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and others have said his dissent in a recent case allowing a pregnant unaccompanied minor detained at the border to get an abortion did not go far enough. Some observers thought his close ties to the George W. Bush administration – he served in his White House counsel’s office, and as his staff secretary – might bother Trump, who has criticized (and been criticized by) the former president.

As was said after Gorsuch’s nomination, Kavanaugh is a conventional Republican nominee from an unconventional Republican president. His nomination “in many ways is as normal as these kinds of nominations get,” says Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. “He easily could have been nominated by John Kasich, Marco Rubio, or any conventional Republican.”

Senate Democrats are gearing up for a bitter confirmation fight. Having been touted since he was added to an official list of potential Supreme Court nominees in November 2017, Kavanaugh has already been the subject of intense opposition research. Republicans have a narrow 51-to-49 majority in the Senate, however, and after they voted to remove the 60-vote threshold for Supreme Court nominees prior to Gorsuch’s confirmation last year there is little that Senate Democrats could do to delay Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

They would be best served by focusing their opposition more on the big picture: How Kavanaugh would change the court compared with how it operated with Kennedy, said Ricki Seidman, a senior White House aide in the Clinton and Obama administrations, in a webinar Tuesday organized by the American Constitution Society.

“This has got to partly be beyond Kavanaugh to what we want the court to be, what it is supposed to be under the Constitution, and what putting Kavanagh on the court means for the institution,” said Ms. Seidman, who helped steer Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination through the Senate.

Right now, both sides of the political spectrum are focused on what Kavanaugh’s nomination might mean to one case in particular. “If they overturn Roe v. Wade, which they might, then I think there’s going to be a reaction, and the reaction is going to be a very strong one, and the reaction will just be a tit for tat. Will the goal be to add seats to the court, and will [it] just be a constant tug of war until someone sits down and says is there a more sensitive way to do this?” says Allan Ides, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and a former clerk for Justice Byron White.

While Kavanaugh would likely be a more reliably conservative justice than Kennedy, nominating reliable candidates to the high court is something Republican and Democratic presidents have been doing for decades, says Professor Somin. The four justices on the court’s liberal wing were all nominated by Democratic presidents, after all. From the 1950s through the early 1990s, justices were not so reliably aligned with the presidents who appointed them, Lee Epstein and Eric Posner write in The New York Times. “For the first time in living memory, the court will be seen by the public as a party-dominated institution,” the law professors write. “This risk, and not just the identity of the next justice, should be at the center of public attention.”

The last justice to drift from the party that nominated him was David Souter, who was nominated by former President George H.W. Bush.

“Democratic presidents have sought to nominate reliable liberals and Republicans have sought to nominate reliable conservatives,” Somin says. “We can’t be naive about this.... On occasions like the Souter nomination, a president screws up and doesn’t get what he bargained for, but it’s not for lack of trying.”

Furthermore, while Kavanaugh is expected to be a reliable conservative vote on the issues of today, he is likely to serve on the court for decades and it’s impossible to know how he might rule on new issues that emerge.

“When Kennedy was nominated to the court in 1987 very few, if any, people thought that same-sex marriage would be a major issue he would rule on when on the court,” Somin says. Kennedy went on to author every major opinion the Supreme Court issued on expanding the rights of LGBTQ people, including the 2015 decision that found same-sex marriage constitutional.

A long paper trail

Kavanaugh, a Catholic in his early 50s, attended Georgetown Prep, a Jesuit high school in Washington’s suburbs that also produced Gorsuch, before going to Yale. In 1998 he joined the team of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel investigating President Bill Clinton. He ended up authoring several sections of Mr. Starr’s report to Congress, including sections that suggested possible grounds for impeachment, and later spent 5-1/2 years working in the Bush administration.

Those experiences helped inform his views on executive power, and when that power should be checked. In a 2009 article in the Minnesota Law Review, he wrote, “the job of the President is far more difficult than any other civilian position,” and that it “would ill serve the public interest” if the president were subject to “time-consuming and distracting” lawsuits and investigations.

With Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, Kavanaugh’s views on such investigations are likely to be questioned during the confirmation process. But some of the more than 300 opinions he authored while on the D.C. Circuit will come under scrutiny as well.

In 12 years on the appeals court, he has proven to be a staunch originalist – the judicial philosophy, favored by the Federalist Society, that calls for interpreting as the Framers would have – in the mold of Gorsuch and Justice Scalia. The D.C. Circuit is widely considered a “feeder” court for the Supreme Court, since it hears many of the same types of cases. On that court Kavanaugh has argued, often using originalist principles, that presidents should have more power over independent agencies within the executive branch, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and that courts should show less deference to decisions and regulations crafted by federal agencies. His dissent in the case of the unaccompanied minor who got an abortion has led some to believe he would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation would swap a relatively moderate conservative for a justice likely to bolster the court’s conservative originalist wing – capping a stunning rise for the philosophy from near-obscurity 30 years ago to a near majority on the high court.

Jurists like Kavanaugh and Gorsuch “have in important ways been groomed by that movement, so the results when they get on the Supreme Court really shouldn’t surprise anybody,” says Steven Schwinn, a professor at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago, and “I think that’s disappointing.”

He adds: “We get a much better jurisprudence, a much better result from the Supreme Court, when the justices are not as closely aligned with political parties or political movements.”

Staff writer Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.

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2. Does squabble over NATO’s cost mask more fundamental US shift?

Is the NATO alliance obsolete? President Trump’s criticism of the cost may hint at a more fundamental question about whether this US-European partnership is still necessary for global security.

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Donald Trump is not the first US president to maintain that European member nations, many of them wealthy, are not paying their fair share of NATO's costs. Even Barack Obama chided them as “free riders.” A larger question for Americans, though, is whether NATO is still relevant today. Some national security experts concur with President Trump’s campaign pronouncement that NATO has outlived its purpose and is too bureaucratic and unwieldy. Others say the United States gets more than what it pays for: partners for its far-flung military operations and a global order on which America’s prosperity rests. “In that sense it’s been and still is an excellent bargain for the American taxpayer,” says Michael O’Hanlon at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Still, it's not so much Trump’s rhetoric over burden-sharing but a much broader questioning of the value of the alliance that has Europeans worried: the idea, says Ian Lesser of the German Marshall Fund, “that this president, instead of really caring that much about what European allies are spending on defense, just doesn’t see Europe and the alliance built with them as central to American geopolitical interests.”

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Does squabble over NATO’s cost mask more fundamental US shift?

When President Trump told a rally in Montana last week that Americans are “schmucks” for carrying the defense burden of wealthy European countries, he set the stage for another contentious meeting with US allies at the NATO summit here Wednesday.

But the bit of coarse presidential hyperbole also raised anew a question that has nagged US presidents since the end of the cold war. It’s a question that has only sharpened under an “America first” president who broadly questions the many multilateral arrangements the United States has led since World War II.

In short, it’s this: Is NATO worth it? Do American taxpayers, and what Trump refers to as the American “piggy bank,” get their money’s worth for participating in and indeed leading Europe’s defense?

Some national security experts concur with Trump’s campaign pronouncement that NATO is “obsolete,” insisting that the 29-nation organization has outlived its purpose and is too bureaucratic and unwieldy. The legitimate common threats the alliance members face, they say, could be more efficiently met through less costly coalitions of willing partners, depending on the particular threat being addressed.

But many others say that the US, as the world’s sole superpower, gets more than what it pays for out of an alliance that provides it with partners for its far-flung military operations – Afghanistan is one example – and that buttresses a Western-led global order on which America’s prosperity rests.

Europe’s wealthy countries should indeed pay their “fair share” (as Trump says) of the cost of this bulwark of transatlantic stability and prosperity, these other experts say – but that doesn’t negate the good deal they see the US getting from NATO.

“NATO is probably the best military alliance in history, there’s not much doubt that the United States would be less secure and less prosperous if it had to do on its own what it has been able to do collectively with its NATO allies,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “In that sense it’s been and still is an excellent bargain for the American taxpayer.”

But being a “good deal” for Americans doesn’t change the reality that NATO is also a “bad deal in the sense that we are paying more than our fair share,” Mr. O’Hanlon adds. “On that part Donald Trump is right – but it’s also true he’s not the first American president to point this out.”

Doubts about the need for a cold-war military alliance blossomed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the brief advent of the “end of history” period. The 9/11 attacks – and more recently Western fears of a revanchist Russia – quieted much of the questioning of NATO’s continued existence.

The US burden

But at the same time the alliance’s newfound purpose prompted both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to demand of European allies that they reverse steady declines in defense spending and take on more of the burden of meeting the new security challenges.

Mr. Obama even chided America’s NATO allies as “free riders.”

Critics of the North Atlantic alliance like to point out that US military expenditures account for about 70 percent of NATO members’ total military spending. Others call this a misleading figure, since the US as a superpower has global reach and ambitions well beyond those of its NATO partners.

More to the point, says O’Hanlon, is the fact that while Europe’s collective gross domestic product is slightly higher than that of the US, its military spending is less than half that of the US. While the US spends more than 3 percent of GDP on defense, only 8 of NATO’s 29 members are expected this year to reach the alliance goal of each member spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, spends just over 1 percent of GDP on defense. Indeed, it was the news from Germany’s defense minister that Europe’s economic powerhouse, while increasing military spending annually, would reach only 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024 that appears more than anything to have set off Trump’s tirade against NATO allies.

On the other hand, analysts in Europe are quick to point out that US pressures have gotten results.

A German soldier drives a Marder 1A4/3 military vehicle at the Sestokai railway station some 109 miles west of the capital Vilnius, Lithuania, Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.
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Mindaugas Kulbis/AP/File

Value of the alliance

Recent studies show Europe to be the region of the world with the fastest-rising defense budgets – a title long held by the Middle East – says Tomas Valasek, a former NATO ambassador for the Slovak Republic who is now director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

“The defense core of the alliance is surprisingly healthy, more NATO members are taking on new duties, and perhaps most important, one could argue that the ability to convince somebody like Russia not to do something foolish against any member of the alliance has never been better,” Mr. Valasek says. “The role NATO plays in preventing that kind of destabilizing conflict has to be worth quite a lot to the US,” he adds.

Moreover, he points out that NATO in recent years has deployed Forward Defense Battlegroups in the three Baltic counties and Poland – one of which, in Lithuania, is led by Germany, a development Valasek deems “politically remarkable.”

Still, some analysts say it is not so much Trump’s fractious rhetoric over military spending and unfair burden-sharing, but a much broader questioning of the value of the transatlantic alliance to the US, that has European leaders worried.

“What’s troubling is not that the American president is pressuring European allies on spending, that’s an old story,” says Ian Lesser, executive director of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Center in Brussels. “What has many people anxious is the much more worrisome possibility that this president, instead of really caring that much about what European allies are spending on defense, just doesn’t see Europe and the alliance built with them as central to American geopolitical interests.”

Adds Mr. Lesser, “What more people are wondering is if what we are witnessing might be the end of America’s 100-year-old pivot to Europe.”

Defending wealthy countries

However it is not just the current occupant of the White House, but some national security analysts as well who question the value of NATO to the US.

“Yes, in my humble opinion, NATO is obsolete, maybe more like a zombie – dead but still walking,” says Michael Desch, director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

In Dr. Desch’s view, the problem with NATO is not so much what it costs the US, but how its structure, with the US at its helm, discourages European countries from matching their powerful economies with a defense that would allow them to stand on their own feet.

“It’s not that the spending is going to break our bank, nor is it that we are getting nothing for our money,” says Desch – who considers Trump’s red-meat rhetoric about allies at political rallies and the president’s mixing of transatlantic security issues with trade differences “ham-handed at best.” The problem he sees “is that we are spending a lot to defend wealthy countries that face a threat nowhere near what it was at the time of the cold war.”

Yes, he adds, the US is doing some important things with European allies, but in his view it’s nothing that requires keeping up a bureaucratic structure “that has outlived its purpose.”

NATO defenders say that kind of thinking far underestimates Russia’s aggressiveness and the threats that failing to stand up to Russian provocations in Eastern Europe could eventually pose to US peace and prosperity. Moreover, they say, it overlooks the post-cold-war tasks NATO has taken on in counterterrorism and in stabilization efforts, including armed forces training and development in Afghanistan and the southern Mediterranean region.

This week’s summit is set to approve a new NATO training mission for the Iraqi military.

Not 'normal times'

But NATO backers acknowledge that positions like those espoused by Desch seem to be closer to the president’s thinking on the uncertain value to the US of a military alliance like NATO.

Valasek of Carnegie Europe says the irony he sees is that this week’s NATO summit is set to formalize a number of collective-defense initiatives that under normal conditions could demonstrate the alliance’s value – including to US taxpayers. For example, NATO leaders will put their stamp on a new deterrence plan aimed at boosting the capacity to deliver forces in short order to back up the forward-defense battalions – a measure intended to reassure NATO’s eastern-most members and to deter Russia.

But for the transatlantic alliance, these are not “normal times,” he says. The problem that is dawning on European leaders is not a US president haranguing them to spend more, he says, but a US president who “may not see Europe’s defense as a core American interest.”

“I’m beginning to think that the NATO allies’ spending is just a red herring, that it doesn’t really matter what the Europeans spend on defense,” Valasek says. “What matters is that whatever else we do in this alliance between America and Europe, we know that the president’s heart is not in it.”

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3. How federal action may roil group conservation effort in Wyoming

The tale of Wyoming’s greater sage-grouse is a rare one of collaboration between conservation and energy interests. A recent push from the US Interior Department threatens to upset that delicate balance.

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Since taking the helm of the US Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has upset a delicate balance of conservation and energy interests in Wyoming, throwing the fate of the greater sage-grouse, which escaped being listed as an endangered species in 2015, into question. Following President Trump’s directive to prioritize energy production, Secretary Zinke has focused on identifying and eliminating any efforts that “unnecessarily burden” energy development. This focus has inevitably made a chicken-sized bird one of the most contentious aspects of Zinke’s 16 months in office. Westerners say the Interior Department’s new energy commitment risks not only the health of the greater sage-grouse but also the largest land conservation effort in US history. The 2015 greater sage-grouse plan proved that compromise between industry, conservation, and landowners was possible – an example of when US policymaking works. Now stakeholders across the 11 states who signed on to the plan worry that the federal government, even a Republican one, will override years of local cooperation. “From outside the state, we have always pointed to Wyoming as proof that we can come to the table and everyone’s voices will be heard,” says Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society.

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How federal action may roil group conservation effort in Wyoming

On a gray, snowy morning in early May, Tom Christiansen keeps his eyes on the male greater sage-grouse dancing on the distant knoll and slowly reaches for his spotting scope on the truck floor.

“The bird is iconic,” says Mr. Christiansen, a self-proclaimed “grouse nerd” who picks up bird scat as if it were a $20 bill. He is the sage grouse program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “It represents the big wide open spaces of the West,” says Christiansen. “I know that if we have sage-grouse on the landscape, we have a functioning ecosystem.”

He is far enough away to need the telescope-binocular hybrid, but he still whispers – careful not to disturb the birds on the lek, or breeding ground. When he picks up his scope, a crumpled news article is revealed. Only part of the headline, “ZINKE… DRAWS WYOMING IRE” is visible, the rest buried under other bird-watching equipment.

Since taking the helm of the US Interior Department, Ryan Zinke has upset a delicate balance of conservation and energy interests in Wyoming, throwing the fate of the greater sage-grouse into question. Following President Trump’s directive to prioritize energy production, Secretary Zinke has focused on identifying and eliminating any efforts that “unnecessarily burden” energy development. This focus has inevitably made a chicken-sized bird one of the most contentious aspects of Zinke’s 16 months in office.

Westerners say the Interior Department’s new energy commitment risks not only the health of the greater sage-grouse, but also the largest land conservation effort in US history. The 2015 greater sage-grouse plan proved that compromise between industry, conservation, and landowners was possible – an example of when US policymaking works. Now stakeholders across the 11 states who signed onto the plan worry that the federal government, even a Republican one, will override years of local cooperation.

“We have seen what America is supposed to do with these governors pulling the oars in the same direction,” says Brian Rutledge, a policy adviser with the National Audubon Society who has been working to find compromise between the energy industry and conservation in Wyoming for more than a decade. “What we did with the 2015 sage-grouse plan is the future of conservation, even if this retro-administration doesn’t want to admit it.”

Across the United States, and the world, energy development and conservation are often considered to have opposing objectives. Energy interests have preconceived notions that any conservation in profitable areas “equals unfair,” and history has made conservation wary of coming to the table in the first place, says Nada Culver, senior counsel at The Wilderness Society. Rhetoric from both sides, she adds, only encourages these assumptions.  

Tom Christiansen, sage-grouse program coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, speaks about the iconic bird in their sagebrush habitat outside Rock Springs, Wyo.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

In Wyoming, natural adversaries have created cooperative arrangements like the sage-grouse plan to prevent a listing under the Endangered Species Act. Players on both sides worry that Zinke’s prioritization of energy over conservation could drive sage-grouse populations so low that the federal government would have no choice but to list the bird as endangered.

Wyoming has “the most at stake” if the greater sage-grouse were to be listed, says Christiansen. The state has more greater sage-grouse, more leks, and more federal onshore gas production than any other state in the US. 

Westerners, especially Wyomingites, are worried Zinke may do away with the greater sage-grouse collaboration as early as October and reduce restrictions on gas drilling in previously protected areas. But they aren’t giving up on the potential for compromise.

“We changed people’s outlook on the largest ecosystem in the US,” says Rutledge referring to the sagebrush ecosystem that spans from southern Canada to New Mexico and Arizona. “They can’t take that away from us.”

Protecting a bird – and Wyoming’s economy

The history of the greater sage-grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, is a part of the history of the West. Plains Indians used to mimic the male bird’s chest punch in ritual dances, and when European settlers moved West in the 1800s, they relied on the millions of greater sage-grouse as a much-needed food source. Early accounts say the bird used to be so plenteous that flocks would darken the sky.

By the 1990s, human interference, mainly habitat fragmentation from energy development and cattle grazing, caused populations to drop, with some estimates as low as 250,000 individuals. This is worrisome for the greater sage-grouse, but also for the entire sagebrush ecosystem. Biologists refer to the bird as an “umbrella” or “indicator” species because if greater sage-grouse populations drop, it’s a pretty good sign that as many as 350 other kinds of wildlife – such as the mule deer, pronghorn, brewer sparrow, golden eagle, and pygmy rabbit – are struggling as well.

“It isn’t just a mascot,” says Christiansen. “It responds to what goes on here. It’s the canary in the coal mine.”

Just as the bird’s success is tied to the success of other animal species, if the bird were to become endangered, it would send ripples across the human ecosystem. Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies, as well as private development companies which require federal permits, are prohibited from adversely modifying critical habitat. An endangered species designation of the greater sage-grouse would cost the state almost $23 billion and almost 86,500 energy and agriculture jobs, University of Wyoming researcher David Taylor found in a recent study commissioned by Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.

“If the sage-grouse got listed, life as we know it would cease to exist,” says Gary Zakotnik, owner of a family ranch in Eden, Wyo.

To preclude an ESA listing, then-Gov. Dave Freudenthal initiated the Wyoming Sage-Grouse Implementation Team (SGIT) in 2007, and tasked a group of energy, government, and conservation leaders to sit down and find an agreement. Rutledge says he remembers Governor Freudenthal telling the group: “I don’t expect all of you to be happy with the plan. But I expect all of you to be able to live with it.”

Male greater sage-grouse display for females during their mating ritual at dawn outside Rock Springs, Wyo. Sage grouse come back to the same sagebrush-covered leks, or breeding grounds, every year.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

In 2008, Freudenthal signed SGIT’s plan into law with the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection executive order. The core area plan made energy development a priority in some areas, and conservation a priority in others. Conservation groups were satisfied with the plan: Their areas protected 31 key habitats for the grouse and included more than 80 percent of Wyoming’s grouse population. And energy companies were satisfied: They were free to pursue development in the remaining 75 percent of Wyoming and they could even develop in conservation’s core areas as long as they abided by certain stipulations, such as no more than one well pad per 640 square miles.

“This was a long, hard process,” says Jayson O’Neill, deputy director at the Western Values Project, an advocacy group that defends public land in the West. “People left the table, they came back to the table … but it’s how policy needs to be done and how we make these decisions. It’s how we go forward protecting our public land.”

Meetings of unlike minds, with results  

When the curtain of night rises on the lek, the male greater sage-grouse are ready to perform.

The first act is “strutting” – an apt description of the male bird’s pompous, unapologetic show of masculinity. With chests in a puffed up in a Superman display of confidence, a handful of greater sage-grouse glide across the lek, periodically punching the sky with a high-pitched hiccup. The few disinterested females on the lek make it seem like the dance is dedicated to no one other than the rising sun, a ritual as primitive and predictable as the Earth’s rotation.

After some territorial squabbling, relationships are formed. Much like humans’ management of the bird.

When the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved Wyoming’s 2008 core area strategy as a viable plan to preclude listing, then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came to Cheyenne and told 10 Western states to follow Wyoming’s example. By 2015, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington had adopted comparable plans.

In September 2015, then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced that, because of the 11-state collaboration, the greater sage-grouse would not require listing under the ESA.

“I felt a great sense of accomplishment for Wyoming” after Ms. Jewell’s announcement, says Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, the main operator on one of the 10 most productive gas fields in the US. The Jonah field, south of Pinedale, Wyo. in Sublette County is also prime habitat for the greater sage-grouse. “That decision continues to reverberate in how to do conservation right,” says Mr. Ulrich.

Paul Ulrich, director of government affairs at Jonah Energy, stands beside a sound wall erected to dampen the loud drilling sounds from a nearby natural gas rig at the Jonah Field on May 4, 2018. It is hoped that the wall will minimize disturbance to the sage grouse in a nearby lek.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

To make sure that voices across Wyoming continue to be heard, 24 representatives from energy, state and federal governments, agriculture, and conservation (including Rutledge and Ulrich) meet six times a year as the state’s sage-grouse implementation team (SGIT), and eight local greater sage-grouse working groups meet to discuss area-specific issues.

These local groups take the time to listen to one another, says Albert Sommers, and that’s what makes Wyoming’s plan work. At past meetings, for example, conservation advocates asked ranchers to take down tall, unused structures on their property, such as windmills, because they are prime nesting areas for ravens, a predator of the sage-grouse eggs. Ranchers were happy to do this, says Mr. Sommers.

“You and I have a conversation, eventually you and I develop a relationship, and eventually you develop trust and out of that you can find a solution,” says Sommers, a state representative for Wyoming, third-generation rancher, and member of the Upper Green River Basin Local Sage-Grouse Working Group. “It’s not simple. It’s not fast. Conservation – real, serious conservation – it’s hard.”

Lek populations naturally cycle through highs and lows, says Christiansen, so it is difficult to know exact figures. But estimates suggest the greater sage-grouse population has remained stable over the past decade. And energy development has continued in recent years as well: Ulrich and Jonah Energy are close to breaking ground on a field almost five times the size of Jonah Field. As many as 3,500 wells are planned for the Normally Pressured Lance natural gas field, says Ulrich, which is just southwest of Jonah. 

“But then a fox entered the henhouse,” says Mr. O’Neill of the Western Values Project. “And that fox was Secretary Zinke.”

In May 2017, just a few months after Zinke was sworn into the Trump administration, Wyoming’s Governor Mead, a Republican, and Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, learned that the new Interior secretary was holding meetings about greater sage-grouse management. They co-authored a letter to Zinke, asking him to involve the states.

Paul Ulrich of Jonah Energy stands among gas wells and a rig at the Jonah Field outside Pinedale, Wyo. Jonah Energy uses fracking to extract natural gas beneath land that is also important to local wildlife – like the greater sage-grouse, mule deer, and pronghorn. The energy field is mostly on federally managed land. The company is mandated to reduce the effects of the industry on wildlife.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Less than two weeks later, Zinke issued a secretarial order to review the state-federal conservation strategy of the greater sage-grouse, “in order to give appropriate weight to the value of energy and other development of public lands....” But as O’Neill says, Zinke put his finger on the scale for energy and began to throw the compromise out of balance.

Conservation advocates say special interests groups have encouraged Zinke’s hand. “There was a lot of rhetoric from trade associations, but we didn’t hear anything from the individual [energy] companies actually working in the West,” says Ms. Culver of The Wilderness Society. “To anyone who looks at these plans, a balance is achieved.” 

This year, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has more than 1.3 million acres in Wyoming up for oil and gas lease, 99.9 percent of which intersects with greater sage-grouse habitat, and more than 53 percent of this area is priority habitat

That figure includes 700,000 acres of new leases on public land in and around the Greater Little Mountain area, south of Rock Springs. Local conservation groups had been meeting with BLM to find common ground on energy development in this crucial migration corridor, but Zinke’s order opening the Greater Little Mountain area canceled these conversations.

SOURCE: Wyoming Game & Fish Department, Wyoming State Geological Survey
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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“This new secretarial order undermines the ability for local folks to have a say,” says Josh Coursey, a founder of the Muley Fanatic Foundation, a group based in Green River, Wyo., that promotes hunting and wildlife management. “That poses a problem because then you have someone 1,800 miles away making a decision that does not necessarily reflect the values of the area.”

Decisionmaking from far away 

The least populated state in the US, Wyoming has a running joke that the state is just one city with really long sidewalks. That makes top-down decisions from Washington seem especially distant. 

And Wyoming’s compromising skills may have something to do with its size, says Sommers. Despite the sparseness of people scattered across the state, “You live with each other, they are your neighbors,” says Sommers.

As a boy, Sommers always knew he would be a cattle rancher. He grew up on this farm, and so did his father, and his father’s father, who moved west in 1907 and chose this land south of Pinedale, Wyo., where the rushing Green River meets hills of purple sage brush. Politics, however, does not run in the family. 

This fall, Sommers will be running for his fourth term in the Wyoming House of Representatives. When explaining what made him want to work in politics, Sommers shrugs. “I like finding solutions,” he says. And just as Christiansen loves the greater sage-grouse because of the open spaces they represent, Sommers says Wyoming owes its policymaking to the landscape.

Albert Sommers (l.) and a ranch hand work on horseback on his ranch near Pinedale, Wyo. Sommers is in his third term serving in the Wyoming legislature and also raises grass-fed beef. This high desert is important for ranchers, wildlife, and energy companies – who often search for compromise in sharing the land for multiple uses.
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Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“There are still vast differences in opinion on certain things,” says Sommers, as tears pool in his eyes, “but how could you live in this landscape and not love it?” 

But the swinging pendulum of national politics, says Sommers, whipping his hands left and right, is bringing Wyoming’s policymaking into question. Every side broke down their walls for compromise and now uncertainty looms at every level, he says. 

Zinke took his secretarial order further in May when he published a draft environmental impact statement that considers drilling in core habitat areas for the greater sage-grouse without the previous protections that strictly limit surface disturbance. Comments on the EIS, both from state officials like Christiansen as well as the public, are due by Aug. 2, and a final decision by Zinke is planned for Oct. 11.

Mead said he sees Zinke’s proposed changes as “minor tweaks,” and SGIT Chair Bob Budd told the news organization WyoFile he doesn’t find them “particularly onerous, scary, or particularly large scale as far as change is concerned.”

Some conservationists, such as Rutledge, says the core area strategy is “as good as done” come October. If this is the case, greater sage-grouse populations will likely decline. But some lawmakers are determined to avoid the economic restrictions that an ESA listing would bring.

An amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act approved by the US House of Representatives would bar the federal wildlife agency from listing the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species for 10 years – regardless of population size. The Senate has passed their own version of the act without such an amendment. Congress’s two houses are currently resolving their differences, such as this amendment, and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry (R), expects a final version of the act to be agreed upon by the end of July.

More broadly, Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso (R) proposed draft legislation earlier this month that would change the ESA itself by giving states more authority in endangered species protection.   

A reversal of the 2015 plan would affect relationships across the West, says Culver of the Wilderness Society.

“From outside the state, we have always pointed to Wyoming as proof that we can come to the table and everyone’s voices will be heard,” says Culver. “Seeing the approach undercut would be a big loss....”

The West has pride in the 2015 plan, says Rutledge, but there is more at stake: trust.

“Instead of making the western handshake mean something, [Zinke] is spitting on those hands,” says Rutledge. “Unlikely friendships have been molded out of this, and now we have sage-grouse fans.”

This story was produced with support from the Earth Journalism Network.

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4. As local news faces unprecedented challenges, one ‘news militia’ steps up

Accountability is critical to democracy. But the financial pressures on media companies have left many communities without a local paper. In Michigan, one citizen-led initiative is trying to fill the gap by reinventing news coverage.

David

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Like reporters at most small-town papers, the team at East Lansing Info (ELi) works hard for little money and is driven by a desire to make their community stronger. But unlike traditional journalists, ELi’s writers are unabashed about the fact that they are engaged as constituents of the officials they are covering. It’s one of a growing number of nonprofit news initiatives that have sprung up around the United States in recent years to try to plug the gaps left by a media industry in financial crisis. Most are scrappy, innovative – and, increasingly, run by people who are not journalists. Alice Dreger, a former professor who founded ELi in 2014, sees her outlet as a model for how citizens can hold their governments accountable and reinvent local journalism in the process. “Every town has ladies with pearls who are incredibly smart and talented,” says Ms. Dreger. “There are women running the League of Women Voters and homeless shelters…. Why should they not run newspapers?”

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As local news faces unprecedented challenges, one ‘news militia’ steps up

It doesn’t exactly sound like a crack investigative team: a former scholar of sexuality with a background in mortgage brokering; a mild-mannered Buddhist with a law degree; a concerned citizen who’s an expert on foraging and cooking weeds; a mother who woke up the day after President Trump’s election and decided she needed to learn about government; a college journalism student home for the summer; and an enterprising high schooler who is into drone ordinances.

But they are all part of East Lansing Info (ELi), a citizen-journalist initiative with a budget of just $70,000 a year that has become a surprisingly influential force in this city of 50,000.

“If you had a professional army doing what we’re doing, it’s a $1 million operation,” says founder Alice Dreger, who calls their shoestring operation a “news militia.”

ELi is one of a growing number of nonprofit news initiatives that have sprung up around the country in recent years to try to plug the gaps left by a media industry in financial crisis. They are scrappy, innovative, and deeply committed to the communities they cover – but they are also cut from different cloth, which in some cases has raised questions about the credibility of their journalism.

“[ELi is] part of a fast-growing landscape of nonprofit news organizations across the US,” says Sue Cross, former Los Angeles bureau chief for The Associated Press who now serves as executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, which has grown from 27 to more than 160 members since its launch in 2009. “Most of them are founded by journalists, but an increasing number are founded by people who are not journalists, like Alice in East Lansing.”

Ms. Dreger, who possesses a Jack Russell Terrier-like drive for digging into city files, sees ELi as a model for how citizens can hold their governments accountable. Since launching in 2014, ELi’s readership has increased more than 38-fold, with close to 20,000 monthly visitors to its website and 2,000 subscribers to its email newsletter. Mayor Mark Meadows reads it regularly, as do many city employees.

Dreger is writing a how-to guide for citizens interested in replicating ELi’s approach, and hopes such initiatives can help restore journalism as a strong fourth pillar of American democracy – even as traditional media outlets have faced drastic budget cuts and struggled to retain their watchdog role.  

ELi, by keeping expenses low, is able to do serious journalism with very few financial resources. But that’s made possible in part because most employees are simply paid by the story ($50 to $100 per article). And Dreger works for free. Still, she doesn’t necessarily see her role as hard to replicate.

“Every town has ladies with pearls who are incredibly smart and talented,” says Dreger. “There are women running the League of Women Voters and homeless shelters …. Why should they not run newspapers?”

Accountability to the community

Like many reporters at small-town papers, Dreger’s team works hard and is driven mainly by a sense of mission and a desire to make their community stronger. But unlike traditional journalists, they are unabashed about the fact that they are constituents of the politicians and government they are covering. Not everybody is comfortable with the way ELi's writers walk that line, particularly when it comes to Dreger – an unapologetic advocate for better government.

Cross says that many news startups are driven by a strong individual – and while the traditional checks and balances of a full-fledged newsroom may not be in place, there is still a very strong check in the form of the community they cover. If the reporters “walk into the restaurant, or the post office, and people thought [their coverage] wasn’t fair, they are going to hear about it directly,” she says. 

Accountability to the community is critical to Dreger, which is why she hasn’t sought to raise money from elsewhere. ELi has about 600 donors, nearly all of whom are local, with contributions ranging from $1 to $100 a month, or several thousand dollars in a lump sum. Dreger and her husband are substantial donors themselves, though they’ve reduced their subsidy to $750 per month as ELi has gathered steam.

She sees ELi as not only a civic service but also a vehicle for inculcating a better appreciation for journalism in an era when many now expect to get their news for free – and when the president has denounced the media as the enemy of the people. “It’s to change the way people think about news in America – to understand the key link between journalism and functional democracy.”

Others, however, say ELi’s watchdog approach has been overly negative – and has given Dreger outsized influence over local affairs. Ruth Beier, a city councilwoman since 2013 who ran at Dreger’s urging but has since crossed swords with her, calls ELi a net positive for the community. But she says its harsh coverage prompted two valued city employees to quit their jobs, and has foiled key city initiatives to raise badly needed revenue.

“Because it focuses on errors and things that [Dreger] doesn’t like, then it’s hard to get public support for anything because people think we’re stupid, or worse,” says Beier. “That level of scrutiny makes anything that requires public support really, really hard, because a lot of people read her paper.”

Right now, Beier is campaigning for a city initiative to raise the income tax in order to help pay its pension obligations. The initiative failed last fall and is back on the ballot for August.

“I’m knocking on doors,” says Beier, “and fully 50 percent of the people who are not going to vote yes are not going to vote yes because of Alice.”

A Democratic city against tax hikes

Dreger knows that, and revels in it.

“People are like, ‘We’re not going to give you more freaking tax money, because look at how you use it,’ ” she explains as she kicks off her weekly luncheon with managing editor Ann Nichols. “Which is very unusual for a blue town.”

Ms. Nichols, the Buddhist with a J.D., jokes that she is married to the one Republican in town. Dreger is a former professor, who quit her job at Northwestern University over what she perceived to be censorship of her work on sexuality. They’re an unusual pair.

“Alice is this very fierce person who comes from New York, and I’m really not,” says Nichols, sitting across a small table from Dreger, whose stories she edits. “When people have a problem with ELi, they mean Alice.”

The venue for their working lunch is Red Haven, a locavore watering hole near the 14-square-mile campus of Michigan State University, which offers dishes like strawberry soup and tempeh chorizo tacos.

On the docket today are a host of issues, including the proposed income tax hike, and how to cover racial profiling concerns without disrupting the strong relationship they’ve built with the police department. They also strategize about how best to deploy their team, some of whom are quite green.

As lunch progresses, Dreger hears back from the city clerk, responding to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests she filed during the mayor’s meeting on the tax hike this morning.

Later, the city clerk’s office tells the Monitor that of all the FOIA requests they receive, about half come from Dreger.

“In the interest of transparency, we appreciate when people file FOIA requests,” says Deputy City Clerk Kathryn Gardner.

Citizens appreciate the digging ELi has done, too.

Linda Dufelmeier, a longtime resident who owns a craft shop downtown along with her husband, Tom, says ELi has been a great asset.

“You can’t get information out of the city about anything, and that’s one of the reasons why it was really great Alice took it upon herself to start investigating,” says Ms. Dufelmeier, whose shop, Mackerel Sky, abuts a massive downtown building project. She and her husband blame the construction for a significant drop-off in their sales, and are frustrated that some of the members of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) have a financial stake in the project. Though those members have recused themselves from related decisions, the couple still believes they’re using their position to influence the project.

Dreger also has concerns. “The developers are friends with the mayor and have arranged a sweet deal,” Dreger says. “I think it was a remarkable thing for a city in this much debt to take its most lucrative property … and to lock it up for 50 years under a lease.”

Mayor Mark Meadows, in an interview with the Monitor, strongly denied that there was any wrongdoing and called the deal “one of the best negotiations to the benefit of the people of East Lansing.” But even as he rebuts Dreger’s criticisms, he speaks approvingly of ELi, which he reads along with The New York Times.

“Is it a valuable part of the community? The answer is yes,” he says, though adding that sometimes a bit of opinion seems to creep in. “For 99 percent of the stories, it’s about the community and what’s going on in the community.”

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Global voices

Worldwide reports on progress

5. At a Bangladeshi school, special care lifts confidence of students, parents

Children diagnosed with autism are often subject to discrimination, and their families may fear embarrassment. This story profiles a foundation that teaches the children how to gain a sense of dominion and independence.

David

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In Bangladesh, an estimated 1.4 to 17.5 percent of children – as many as 10 million – were identified by a UNICEF report to have special needs or disabilities. The 2014 report noted that much work needs to be done to fully realize the rights of these children. Many parents tend to hide their children’s disorders out of fear of embarrassment. Worldwide, 1 in every 160 children is said to be diagnosed with autism, and they are often subject to discrimination. But according to the World Health Organization, behavioral treatment and parental skills training can reduce these difficulties and have a positive impact on well-being and quality of life. Founded in 2012 in Bangladesh, the Unique Gift Foundation is a nonprofit whose school gives these children the confidence to perform day-to-day tasks without depending on their parents or others. Along with academics, the school offers classes in physical play, socializing, art, and music. Students also learn skills such as how to ride a bicycle, organize their books, and say their prayers.

This story is one of several from world news outlets that the Monitor is publishing as part of an international effort to highlight solutions journalism.

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At a Bangladeshi school, special care lifts confidence of students, parents

No parent is ever prepared to hear that his or her child is anything other than happy and healthy. But there are many ways in which special education can help improve the quality of life for children who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The Unique Gift Foundation’s school in Saidpur, northern Bangladesh, is a helping hand to families of such children.

The Unique Gift Foundation is a nonprofit founded in 2012. Its mission is to offer support, giving children the confidence to perform day-to-day tasks without depending on their parents or others. The school was the first one dedicated entirely to autistic children to open in the Nilphamari district, the highest ranking region in education in the country, about 250 miles from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

The school’s founder, Tauhida Sultana, is a businesswoman who grew up in the same district as the school. She was motivated to establish it following her experiences with a nephew diagnosed with autism, and because she witnessed the distress of other families affected by the disorder. She recalls one family who kept their child hidden from guests, isolated and tied up in another room of the house.

A UNICEF report published in 2014 estimates that between 1.4 percent and 17.5 percent of children in Bangladesh have special needs or disabilities – as many as 10 million children. The report notes that much work needs to be done to fully realize their rights. Many parents tend to hide their children’s disorders out of fear of embarrassment. The children often struggle with social skills, speech or nonverbal communication, as well as repetitive behavior.

Worldwide, 1 in every 160 children is said to have autism, and they are often subject to discrimination. But according to the World Health Organization, behavioral treatment and parental skills training programs can reduce these difficulties, and have a positive impact on well-being and quality of life.

Twice a year, the Unique Gift Foundation provides teacher training programs on child development, nutrition, psychology, and therapy. Teachers at the school learn to assess each student’s individual needs. Along with academics, the school offers classes in physical play, socializing through conversation, art, and music. Students also learn how to share their snacks, ride a bicycle, comb their hair, organize their books and bags, use the toilet, and say their prayers, among other things.

The school’s principal, Rubayatul Islam, says, “Children on the autism spectrum rarely like to interact with people of their own age. They might easily become angry and start a scuffle, so teachers need to calm them down.”

The stories of students at the Unique Gift Foundation school indicate that they can learn to adapt. Nine-year-old Nurul demanded a lot of attention from his parents. “He would break utensils and other things within his reach if we did not respond to his call. We did not care for his behavior and thought he would change as he grew older,” says Nurul’s father. When Nurul was 6, his parents put him in a regular school. His father recalls, “He would get into fights, scream, and bite others. The principal called me one day and asked me to take my son home because of his abnormal behavior.” Nurul’s parents enrolled him in the Unique Gift Foundation school. A year later, their son was friendly and calm with his fellow classmates.

Three-year-old Afia had a severe speech impairment along with acute attention deficit hyperactivity problems. She had a tendency to remain silent and isolated. Sohana Akhter, a teacher at the school, says, “Being friendly and loving with her, along with professional counseling, has brought changes in Afia’s behavior.” Afia now plays with other children, and can pronounce words such as “mother” and “water.” Though Ms. Sultana mostly funds the school, the children’s parents must pay a small fee to run the school, which currently has 33 students, 17 teachers, and eight staff members. People from the district and surrounding areas wanting to set up schools for autistic children frequently visit the school to learn about its methods.

The foundation now aims to build an autism village in the same school district with modern facilities such as hospitals, computer labs, psychotherapy centers, playgrounds, and guest rooms.

This story was reported by The Daily Star, a news outlet in Bangladesh. The Monitor is publishing it as part of an international effort by more than 50 news organizations worldwide to promote solutions journalism. To read other stories in this joint project, please click here.

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The Monitor's View

The big question for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee

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Like Supreme Court nominees before him, Judge Brett Kavanaugh will frustrate his Senate questioners with nonanswers so as not to tip his hand on future cases before the court. That’s as it should be. Nominees for the judicial branch try to be models of restraint when asked how they would engraft their political preferences on society. Most see their role as one of civic-minded conflict management. They want to be perceived as meting out justice based on reason, fair assessment of the facts, respect for constitutional principles and traditions, and a balancing of individual rights and the will of the majority. Beyond the Supreme Court’s marbled walls, those virtues are rarely seen by the public. Yet they are essential to a healthy republic. If the Supreme Court is ever to be seen as nonpolitical, then both the president and the Senate will need to start picking nominees based on their ability to practice virtue and intelligence in their decisions. The courts are entrusted to look to the Constitution for guidance. In addition, the process of decisionmaking must also reflect the virtues expected of self-governing and sovereign individuals.

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The big question for Trump’s Supreme Court nominee

Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s latest nominee for the Supreme Court, will soon be subjected to what he once called in a lower court decision the “activities of democratic self-government.” An elected body, the Senate, will pepper what could be a lifelong independent justice with questions to test how his views on issues from abortion to gun rights will influence his decisions as a Supreme Court judge.  

Like court nominees before him, Judge Kavanaugh will frustrate his interlocutors with nonanswers so as not to tip his hand on future cases before the court. As it should be.

Despite decades of attempts to politicize the courts, nominees for the judicial branch still try to be models of restraint when asked how they would engraft their political preferences on society. Most see their role as one of civic-minded conflict management. They want to be perceived as meting out justice based on reason, fair assessment of the facts, respect for constitutional principles and traditions, and a balancing of individual rights and the will of the majority.

Beyond the Supreme Court’s marbled walls, those virtues are rarely seen by the public. Yet they are essential to a healthy republic.

“[I]f the Justices have any way to further the cause of our self-government,” wrote law scholar Frank Michelman in a well-noted 1986 Harvard Law Review article, “it lies through the exercise of their own.”

Senators will need to test Kavanaugh’s commitment to his own self-government, or the process by which he interprets the Constitution while relying on the highest ideals embedded in it. The court itself, like the legislative and executive branches of government, is not above the founding document. It must be obedient to it.

The majority of the high court’s decisions are unanimous or near-unanimous, a sign of how well justices can serve as a model of collective self-government. The justices hold fast to James Madison’s hope that the people will have the virtue and intelligence to select representatives, and in turn pick judges, who demonstrate virtue and intelligence in their decisions.

The courts do not have the power of the purse, as Congress does, or the power of the sword, as the presidency does. Rather their power lies in the character of judges in interpreting the Constitution and past court rulings to safeguard both social order and individual liberty.

If the Supreme Court is ever to be seen as nonpolitical, both the president and the Senate will need to start picking nominees based on their ability to practice self-government. The courts are entrusted to look to the Constitution for guidance, but in addition, the process of decisionmaking must also reflect the virtues expected of self-governing and sovereign individuals.

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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.

Love your enemies?

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At a time when people are increasingly realizing the need for less friction and conflict among those with opposing views, the gospel message of loving our enemies seems more relevant than ever. Today we share a poem that helps show us how.

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Love your enemies?

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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It puzzled me for the longest time:
Jesus’ saying to all
(Including us)
Love your enemies.”

Love the Lord thy God.”
Well, sure.
Love thy neighbour as thyself.”
Fine.
But “Love your enemies?

My balky heart said no.
“Not till they change,” it said.
“Not till they do something
To become lovable.
How can I? Why should I?”

Then one day I looked it up,
And saw what follows:
“Love your enemies ...;
That ye may be the children
Of your Father
Which is in heaven.”

Oh.
That changes everything.

For your own sake –
For the sake of all mankind –
See only what God sees;
Refuse to be hoodwinked
Into beholding an enemy.
Let nothing and nobody
Trick you into letting go of love,
No matter what.

Love your enemies?
If we could,
It would ...
When we do,
It will ...
Change everything.

Originally published in the Christian Science Sentinel, Jan. 16, 1989.

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Viewfinder

A right royal flyover

Members of the Red Arrows Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team fly over London, heading for Buckingham Palace, to mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force July 10. The exhibition team uses Hawk T1 jets. Later, 22 RAF Typhoon jets joined up in a formation that spelled out the number 100.
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SAC Rose Buchanan RAF/MoD/Crown Copyright/Reuters
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( July 11th, 2018 )

David Clark Scott
Editor & product manager

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’re looking at what the abrupt exodus of key players in Theresa May’s government means for Britain’s plans to exit the European Union.

Monitor Daily Podcast

July 10, 2018
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