2019
May
24
Friday

Irwing Lazo is a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq. He says that the first principle of the Marine Corps is honor.

And that, Mr. Lazo says, is why he’s insulted by reports that President Donald Trump is considering pardons for several U.S. service members charged with or convicted of war crimes, including murder. It’s possible those pardons could be issued as early as this Memorial Day weekend.

If they do happen, they’d be “the exact opposite of what the military stands for,” Mr. Lazo, who now works for a California school district, told our correspondent Martin Kuz.

Honor is not a vague concept in the U.S. military. Specific definitions are drilled into recruits. The Marine definition calls for Corps members to “exemplify the ultimate” in ethical and moral behavior, among other things.

“This is the bedrock of our character,” it says.

At issue are actions that seem to contradict that ethos. The situations differ. But one case involves a Navy SEAL accused of killing a defenseless prisoner and shooting unarmed civilians, including a young girl, in Iraq. Another involves the murder of an unarmed Afghan. And so on.

Some high-ranking former officers, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, have denounced the possible pardons. They say excusing such behavior could put American troops at risk.

Rank-and-file vets contacted by Mr. Kuz had personal reactions to the news.

Joe Fuentes, a Floridian who deployed to Afghanistan with the Marine Corps Reserves in 2009, says that issuing such pardons on Memorial Day shows a misunderstanding of the holiday, meant to remember members of the military who paid the ultimate price.

Maggie Seymour, a resident of South Carolina and Marine intelligence officer who deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, worries the pardons might erode Americans’ support of the military.

“It’s damaging at the personal level,” concluded Mr. Lazo, a former corporal. “It diminishes my sacrifice and the sacrifice of everyone who has served honorably.”

Now to our five stories for the day, which include a look at how employers are ditching their old thinking about age and hiring more older workers, and a story about a town in southern Jordan and its centuries-old tradition of hospitality and the feeding of travelers.

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1. Where is workforce really booming? Among the oldest workers.

By conventional reckoning, someone at 65 years old or even 55 is “retirement age.” But labels are being lifted as older people stay active – and as employers see value in hiring them.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Darneese Carnes poses in front of a duck boat that she drives. She's been working for several years at Boston Duck Tours, which takes tourists around the city in amphibious vehicles. It's still a struggle to make ends meet, she says.

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Older workers are the fastest growing part of the U.S. labor force. The number of workers age 65 to 74 will be 55% higher in 2024 than in 2014, the Labor Department projects. And the projected increase for workers 75 and older is 86%.

For some senior workers, it’s about earning needed income. For others, it’s about improving one’s lifestyle by giving of one’s talents. Among employers, the hiring boom is partly cyclical. In a tight job market, McDonald’s for example announced it was teaming up with AARP to recruit seniors to fill 250,000 openings this summer. But companies also see it as a long-term shift in their employment base. For many, age diversity in the workforce helps them cater to older customers as well as young ones.

A bias against maturity persists, as some prominent age-discrimination lawsuits attest. Still, opportunities are growing for people like Darneese Carnes, who hit a mental low point after losing her job in her mid-50s. Now, after help from a nonprofit called Operation Able, she’s happy in a job for Boston’s iconic duck-boat tours. “I love driving!” she says. “I love people.”

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Where is workforce really booming? Among the oldest workers.

Darneese Carnes was in a bad mental place three years ago. In October, she was fired from her job at a group home in suburban Boston, especially tough for a woman in her mid-50s with few job prospects. The next month, her sister died. Her brother-in-law, a trucker, was so worried about her he took her along for two months while he made his runs.

Back home, she ran across a flyer from Operation Able, a Boston nonprofit aimed at getting people, especially older people, back into the workforce through training and job placement. She did so well there, the nonprofit itself hired her. “Operation Able really did save my life,” she says.

Since then, Ms. Carnes has moved to Boston Duck Tours, which offers land-water tours of the city, and drives its iconic duck boats. “I love driving!” she says. “I love people.”

A funny thing is happening on the way to America’s aging crisis, which is expected to strain government resources and could well drag down economic growth. Increasingly, senior employees are staying in the workforce, either holding onto their jobs long beyond traditional retirement or returning to work after retirement. And companies, which once tried to push seniors out the door, are waking up to the potential value that they offer.

“There seems to be more understanding about the characteristics, the value that older people bring to workplaces,” says Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging.

More than 800 employers have signed AARP’s pledge to promote equal opportunity for all workers, regardless of age. In 2018, the number of firms making the pledge grew 72%; this year, the Washington-based senior advocacy group expects another hefty increase.

“Age is now a new flavor of diversity,” says Tim Driver, CEO of Age Friendly Ventures, which operates RetirementJobs.com and other job websites for senior workers.

‘This is not temporary’

Companies are getting increasing recognition for their efforts to attract older workers. Last year, job website Glassdoor highlighted 12 employers hiring workers over 50, including KPMG, Bucknell University, and General Mills. Also in 2018, Columbia University’s aging center awarded 13 New York City area businesses for being “age smart,” including utility National Grid, high-end piano manufacturer Steinway, and the Bronx Zoo, whose 2,400-member workforce ranged in age from 16 to 91.   

Part of firms’ interest in older workers is cyclical. With the unemployment rate at a 50-year low, businesses are desperate for workers.

Just last month, McDonald’s announced it was teaming up with AARP to recruit seniors to fill 250,000 openings this summer.

But once the next downturn hits, the focus on older workers will continue, experts predict.

“I can assure you this is not temporary,” says Glassdoor’s chief economist, Andrew Chamberlain. “This is a long-term shift that has been going on for years.”

The reason is demographics. With longer and healthier life spans, seniors are staying in the workforce – sometimes because they’re worried about running out of money, sometimes because they’re worried about getting bored. Older workers are the fastest growing part of the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It projects that between 2014 and 2024 the number of workers age 65 to 74 will rise 55% and those 75 and older will increase 86%. By 2024, a quarter of all workers will be 55 or older.

The shift isn’t enough to fully counteract the economic challenges that many expect from an aging society, says Mr. Chamberlain. But having more workers working longer will help. And all those workers are also consumers.

Take CVS Health, the nation’s largest retail pharmacy chain. Under its Talent is Ageless program, it has tried to attract older workers by making the workplace more friendly: increased lighting, carpeted floors, color-coded signage, and increased font sizes on its shelves. It has also come up with creative schedules to accommodate seniors, such as telecommuting, flextime, job sharing, and compressed workweeks so that someone can work four 10-hour days rather than a five-day schedule. In the early 1990s, 7% of its employees were 50 and over; today, it’s 24%.

“We’ve been focused on recruiting and working with mature workers for more than 20 years because we recognize that hiring mature workers makes good business sense for our company,” says David Casey, the chain’s vice president of workforce strategies and chief diversity officer, in a statement to the Monitor. “As we see the Baby Boomer generation age, having staff in our store that can personally relate to these customers – our fastest growing customer base – is a differentiator for us.”

That same dynamic is present in caregiving jobs for the elderly. Hospitals and senior care homes are a popular landing spot for older workers.

“We talk about recruiting every day,” says Tim Reilly, vice president of associate experience at Benchmark Senior Living in Waltham, Massachusetts. The company, which has some 60 facilities spread across the Northeast, started working with Age Friendly Ventures last year so that it could recruit more senior workers.

“I have never felt as content in my life as I have working here,” says Esta Avasalu, a septuagenarian and program assistant at Evans Park, one of Benchmark’s assisted living facilities in suburban Boston. “I can empathize with what people are going through. It takes me a month to clean my place instead of two days” like it used to.

Plenty of hiccups

Ms. Avasalu works full time because she has to. Her co-worker, Jeannette Offutt, works because she wants to. She retired for six years after her accounting firm laid her off after 30 years. “But I got bored.” She initially tried to get back into accounting. Eventually, she called on her experience in the Army as a medic, got certified as a nurse assistant at the YMCA, and landed a job as a med tech at Evans Park. “I love it! … I learn a lot from [the patients], and I admire them.”

Senior workers’ technical skills can be out of date and even their jobs can become obsolete. One man who came to Operation Able a couple of years ago had spent his career making sets and props for stage plays. He was suddenly unemployed because the theater was winding down. “What do you do with that?” says Chad Cotter, director of talent acquisition at Boston Medical Center and a volunteer at Operation Able.

But when he dug into the man’s background he found that he had to buy all his own materials (strong accounting skills), meet deadlines, and deal with any curveballs thrown his way. Mr. Cotter’s company (he worked for a different hospital then) hired the man as a project coordinator. “That was the absolute right fit,” Mr. Cotter says. The man went on to be promoted twice.

There are also plenty of hiccups. While a corporation’s leadership may be moving to embrace mature workers, the situation on the ground may be quite different.

“It all depends on the management of each store & those above the manager,” one CVS employee groused, anonymously, on retirementjobs.com. Younger managers “do not know how to treat an older worker & sometimes will try things to get rid of them or not promote them.”

And despite the move by a rising number of companies to embrace older workers, the bias against maturity persists. A global Deloitte survey last year of more than 11,000 human-relations and business leaders found that just under half the employers had done nothing to help older workers find new careers and another 15% viewed older workers as an obstacle to younger, more talented workers. (Research suggests that’s not true, Mr. Chamberlain says.)

Last month, a federal judge allowed a class-action suit against PricewaterhouseCoopers, which alleges that thousands of qualified job applicants 40 and older were discriminated against because the firm recruited new college graduates. A ProPublica investigation found that 20,000 U.S.-based IBM employees 40 and over were laid off in favor of younger workers – a charge the company denies.

Changing mindsets about the value of these workers will take time – not only for employers but for the workers.

“Everything I do in my work is around improving the lives of older people, about changing the culture of aging,” says Mr. Irving, the aging expert at Milken. “And yet it’s the case when I look in the mirror that I know I have to get over my own biases about the implications of my own aging. ... The first thing we have to change is ourselves.”

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2. Mideast peace plan’s rocky start: Did US misread Arab politics?

There should be peace in the Middle East. All agree. So however much skepticism has been expressed of President Trump’s long promised grand plan, there was still, at the very least, curiosity about what it would contain.

Peter

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Palestinians have expressed mostly alienation from President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan. Their position: Independence is nonnegotiable, and the Trump administration’s actions to date, both favoring Israel and hostile to Palestinians, have undermined any lingering faith that the United States can broker an acceptable agreement.

So it should have been no surprise that their reaction to the plan’s first phase, an economic conference in Bahrain, was hostile, even though the U.S. insists there is more to the grand plan than money. But regional analysts say that beyond alienating the Palestinians, the U.S. miscalculated by misreading the internal dynamics of Arab world politics.

For one, Palestinian independence and Jerusalem are emotive issues, giving the Palestinians a powerful veto over diplomatic initiatives. Second, as a consequence, there are limits to how much America’s wealthy allies in the Gulf can pressure the Palestinians without paying a price.

Says Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority: “Arab public opinion still matters, and that is what gives Palestinians leverage in those Arab states – to make appeals to Arab publics, especially on key issues such as Jerusalem.”

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Mideast peace plan’s rocky start: Did US misread Arab politics?

The first phase of the long-awaited U.S. plan for Middle East peace, a summit in Bahrain to discuss economic investment in the Palestinians, is already beginning to look like a major miscalculation.

The announcement this week of the June 25-26 event was met with a wave of derision among Palestinians and in the Arab press, culminating Wednesday in the Palestinian Authority’s official rejection of the U.S. invitation to attend.

The central complaint: that the economic component of peace could not be addressed without agreeing first on fundamental political principles.

Or put another way: Palestinian independence is nonnegotiable, and the Trump administration’s actions to date, both favoring Israel and hostile to Palestinians, have undermined any lingering faith that a U.S.-led process can lead to an acceptable agreement.

But, say analysts, the U.S. miscalculation in launching the economic phase of its peace plan first goes beyond the alienation of the Palestinians and the precipitation of their boycott. At its core, they say, it exposes the administration’s inability to read the internal dynamics of Arab politics – a misreading that has jeopardized the much-touted peace process before it even begins.

Cart before the horse?

Despite repeated statements by Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, that the deal is “more than just economic peace,” analysts say that by choosing to launch the economic component as the first pillar of its plan next month, Washington has done little to win over skeptics.

“When you roll out this great economic component first, that suggests that the plan itself is primarily economic,” says Khaled Elgindy, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. “If they are not talking about a Palestinian state and are rolling out an economic component first, it is reasonable to assume that the political component itself is limited.”

Without discussing political issues – the status of Jerusalem, a Palestinian state, refugees, or settlement freezes – the United States has cemented a view among Palestinians and Arabs that the peace plan is an “economic normalization” with Israel that legalizes the status quo in return for economic development.

Moreover, it boosted the Palestinian leadership’s argument that the unreleased deal is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vision: a future with permanent Jewish settlements in the West Bank, an Israeli Jerusalem, and no Palestinian state.

What is left at Bahrain is a low-risk and low-reward conference that Palestinians can boycott and Arab states can attend without the risk of being seen as making any commitments to a U.S.-proposed deal.

It remains unknown whether the Gulf states, themselves embroiled in a costly war in Yemen and facing rising unemployment, will even open up their checkbooks without the Palestinians on board.

“I think everybody going to Bahrain is skeptical of any positive result – very skeptical, to put it mildly – because the Arabs do not feel there is a credible Israeli partner for peace,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst.

“There is a sense that this conference, like any other conference, will not be enough to convince Israel to finally come up with a desired outcome – a Palestinian state.”

Limits of pressure

The Trump administration’s peace process was built on the belief that Washington and the Gulf – namely through Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – could bring the Palestinian leadership to heel with a combination of political pressure and cuts in U.S. aid, say those close to negotiations.

Seeing the Palestinian Authority as politically weak and financially dependent on both the U.S. and Arab capitals, Washington overlooked or undervalued the Palestinians’ greatest asset.

“The Palestinians’ main leverage is to deny legitimacy to this process, not only through their lack of participation, but also through the Arab states’ participation themselves,” says Mr. Elgindy.

Analysts say the Trump administration has underestimated the emotive issues at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Palestine as a symbol of Arab independence; and Jerusalem, holy to Arab Muslims and Christians.

“Arab public opinion still matters, and that is what gives Palestinians leverage in those Arab states – to make appeals to Arab publics, especially on key issues such as Jerusalem,” says Mr. Elgindy.

Backed into a corner by Saudi Arabia and the U.S., Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and others in the Palestinian leadership have resorted to appealing to the Arab public – pushing a narrative that Mr. Trump’s so-called “ultimate deal” was a surrender of both Jerusalem and a Palestinian state.

Fethi Belaid/AP
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) and the secretary general of the PLO, Saeb Erekat, attend the 30th Arab Summit in Tunis, Tunisia, March 31. The Palestinian Authority this week formally rejected an invitation to attend an economic conference in Bahrain.

Setting the tone

Reports in the U.S. press in 2017 of an alleged proposal by Crown Prince Mohammed and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, that would forgo East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital and create a Palestinian state on less than all of the West Bank and Gaza enflamed Arab public opinion. Saudi Arabia was accused of trying to “sell off” Jerusalem in return for U.S.-Israeli support against Iran.

Saudi King Salman publicly overruled his son in mid-2018, stating that Jerusalem is a “red line” and moving to reassure the Palestinian Authority with funds and a return to the kingdom’s original stance. Since the reversal, the Saudi crown prince has been pushed to the background on peace-related issues.

The incident exposed the limits of Gulf pressure and offered a road map for the Palestinian leadership they have used repeatedly in response to pressure from Washington and Arab states.

“They are simply trying to show the amount of money Palestinians could receive if they accept their terms of surrender,” Saeb Erakat, PLO secretary general and lead negotiator, says of the conference, describing the U.S. plan as a “colonization of Palestine.”

Gulf states have since been cautious in discussing their positions on the still-unreleased U.S. plan, even in announcing next month’s conference.

“The peace workshop is a continuation of [Bahrain’s] supportive approach to enable the Palestinian people to enhance their abilities and resources to achieve their legitimate aspirations. ... There is no other objective behind hosting,” the Bahraini foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, said this week on Twitter. “We have nothing but admiration and respect for the Palestinian leadership.”

In announcing its participation in the conference, the UAE reiterated “its support for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital,” stressing “efforts aimed at development and prosperity are not in conflict with the UAE’s position.”

The Trump Administration’s strategy of Arab-led pressure without political incentives not only backfired, say Arab analysts and officials, but fractured Arab-Palestinian ties to the point where Arab states have lost much of their sway over Palestinian leadership.

The Palestinian defiance reportedly has led Gulf states to search for alternatives to Mr. Abbas within the Palestinian Authority who would back the deal, but they were unsuccessful.

A growing concern for the Gulf states is that if they press the beleaguered Mr. Abbas too hard, that could boost the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Hamas in the West Bank, with one Gulf official saying, “we do not want to lose the Palestinian arena to extremists.”

“The gap between the Palestinians and key capitals in the Arab world are greater than ever, the Palestinians are more divided than ever, [and] they are having a difficult time with this American administration,” says Mr. Abdulla, the Emirati analyst.

Alienated Allies

One of the Trump administration’s key mistakes, say regional analysts and officials, was to exaggerate the leverage that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other oil-rich Gulf states have over their allies and patrons across the region, and to overlook the nuances and competing interests in intra-Arab politics.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt has made its support for the U.S. approach dependent on concessions – most notably an increase in U.S. financial support and designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist movement.

Yet even as Mr. Trump hinted the U.S. will deliver on the Brotherhood, Cairo has apparently hesitated over the domestic political fallout of a deal that appears to “give away Jerusalem.”

And Jordan, one of two Arab states with full ties with Israel and perhaps the state with the greatest influence over Palestinian leadership, has become the least likely or able to publicly support the Trump plan.

Jordan’s King Abdullah reportedly was blindsided by the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later to defund UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides critical services to over 1 million Palestinians in his kingdom.

The Trump administration had sidelined Jordan in the belief that the resource-poor kingdom’s reliance on U.S. and Gulf aid would make it step in line no matter the political cost, according to those close to Jordan-U.S. discussions.

But the prospect of a Palestinian state is an issue of national security for Jordan, home to 3 million Palestinian refugees and some 3 million tribal Jordanians. The latter fear that either the permanent settlement of the refugees or the death of a two-state solution would undermine their standing in their own country.

Publicly, Jordan has remained defiant, with King Abdullah hinting at American pressure and reassuring his people that “Jerusalem is a red line,” while reportedly advocating Washington in private to rethink its approach.

Pressure is ongoing behind closed doors from Arab states on Palestinian leadership to soften their opposition, but with every actor reaching their political and diplomatic limits, frustration and apathy is growing in Arab capitals as the Bahrain conference nears.

“The Gulf has failed in delivering the Palestinians, and the Arab street is united against this deal,” says Hassan Barari, a Jordanian political analyst and expert in Israeli-Arab ties.

“In the eyes of the Arab states, this is another failed US-led peace process, but this time it has failed before it has even begun.”

Adds Mr. Erakat: “I hope they are getting to realize that Palestine is a country with a people and a just cause rather than a piece of real estate in New York.”

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3. Reporting in Mexico isn’t easy. Under AMLO, it may get harder.

Populist leaders across the globe are tuning in to the political power of criticizing the press. What does that mean for a country that is already among the world’s most dangerous for journalists?

Peter

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When Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office last December, he began a tradition that seemed like a windfall for journalists: livestreamed daily press conferences. Early each morning, the leftist president spends an hour answering questions and sharing his thoughts – a level of access unimaginable under previous Mexican administrations.

But the president, who spoke of press freedom on the campaign trail, has also used those pressers to discredit critical reporters and publications. And at a time of increasing polarization, some of his supporters are quick to intensify an attack online, echoing language at the press conference, where journalists have been dismissed as fifí – elite – or conservative.

Maybe this all sounds familiar, part of the growing global pattern of populist leaders demonizing the free press. But in Mexico, analysts say, the situation is particularly high-stakes. For more than a decade, it’s been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Six journalists have been killed in the past six months alone. 

“This government is trying to figure out a way to both control the narrative and keep critical media at bay, while trying not to cross the line where they can be blamed for direct violence,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen of the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

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Reporting in Mexico isn’t easy. Under AMLO, it may get harder.

Mexico has been on track for an unwelcome press freedom record since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office last December: six journalists slain in the same number of months.

For more than a decade, the country has been one of the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, thanks to high levels of violence and impunity, combined with weak institutions.

But over the past several months, reporters and analysts say, a new kind of threat has emerged. In part, it fits a broader trend of populist leaders from the United States to Italy to Brazil demonizing the media and galvanizing a fervent base online. But the history of violence against journalists here, and the complex relationships between politics, organized crime, and censorship, make it particularly dangerous in Mexico.

Mr. López Obrador, who spoke of the importance of press freedom on the campaign trail, has broken new ground by holding daily early-morning press conferences, giving reporters a level of presidential access unimaginable under past administrations. But he’s also used the livestreamed pressers as a platform to discredit journalists and news outlets that criticize him. There are casual jabs, like dismissing critical journalists as “fifí” (elite), conservative (he rose to power on a leftist wave of support), or puppets. His comments can enter more threatening terrain, however. During an April press conference, he bristled at a question about the country’s rising murder rate, responding, “If you cross the line, well, you know what happens, right? But it’s not me, it’s the people.”

Reporters sympathetic to his ideas have been praised, while critics have fallen prey to more serious repercussions from the president’s base. The editor of Reforma, a top daily newspaper, received death threats after being chided by the president for publishing a story that included his home address, which was already in the public domain. A national columnist, Ivonne Melgar, was buried by a siege of pro-government Twitter bots echoing the president’s language after she questioned him – and then again, after she commented on the attack.

“He is very popular and very loved with a huge social base of support, which makes his words really powerful,” says Ms. Melgar. “If he says to his followers that those who ask difficult questions [are] sellouts or conservatives or some other label, the social damage is really serious. It makes you doubly vulnerable in this field of work.”

Mornings with AMLO

According to press freedom groups, upward of 100 reporters and editors have been killed in Mexico since 2000. It falls toward the bottom of the most recent World Press Freedom Index, ranking 144 out of 180 countries.

Past leaders have paid lip service to the need for better protection of journalists. And there have been important steps in recent years, like the creation of a national Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders and Journalists in 2012. But multiple journalists supposedly protected by it have shown up dead – including Francisco Romero, who was shot last week – and funding is often in question.

Yet the regular, hourlong press conferences hosted by AMLO, as the president is commonly known, are considered a small bright spot.

“The fact that the president gives a press conference every morning is absolutely extraordinary and unprecedented across Latin America,” says Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a dream of any journalist to have direct access to the president every day and to ask whatever you want.”

Other regional leaders who regularly broadcast their policies or musings to the public, like former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on his program “Aló Presidente,” were not likely to take questions from or engage in conversations with the press, Mr. Alves adds. Although AMLO skirts certain questions, the daily event is groundbreaking.

But in a rapidly changing media atmosphere, the impact of broadcast press conferences is changing, too, he explains, citing factors like social media, new media business models, journalism layoffs, and increasing violence against reporters. For decades, Mexican media have relied almost exclusively on government advertising for revenue. At the local level, in particular, that can result in self-censorship, or encouragement to drop critical stories. The tight relationship some papers have historically been perceived to have with previous administrations has left some AMLO supporters suspicious.

The mañaneras, as the press conferences are called, have also allowed AMLO to dominate the media message, or even bypass the media entirely. Their official YouTube channel sometimes has 50,000 people tuning in, and they’re streamed on other services like Periscope as well. Viewers flood the streaming platforms with comments ranging from declarations of love for the president to mocking reporters’ dress, makeup, or speech.

“AMLO has a large, fanatical following online and when he tries to call out an outlet or journalist, which he’s done on numerous occasions, his following will coordinate attacks on those outlets or individuals, which results in huge amounts of harassment,” says Jan-Albert Hootsen, the Mexico representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

After his initial criticism of Reforma, and the ensuing death threats, AMLO announced he’d offered its editor protection. The media will be “untouchable,” he vowed during the mañanera on April 26, saying, “We are not going to use the state to threaten, to intimidate, much less to suppress” the press.

But the administration needs to make good on its promise, Mr. Hootsen says. “This government is trying to figure out a way to both control the narrative and keep critical media at bay, while trying not to cross the line where they can be blamed for direct violence. It’s a risky and dangerous strategy.”

‘A new reality’

Ms. Melgar says she wasn’t scared when she noticed her Twitter account overwhelmed by hateful tweets earlier this year.

“I wasn’t afraid. It made me conscious that we are now working under a new model,” she says. She’s worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, covering two former administrations. Journalists now have to “prepare themselves for a new reality” where orchestrated online attacks are a regular feature, she says.

Social media attacks on journalists have grown since AMLO took office, according to a February report from ITESO university in Guadalajara. Twitter accounts run by bots, or software that controls an account’s actions, magnify the president’s anti-media commentary via retweets and insulting hashtags. (In another morning press conference, the president said the government does not use bots.)

Polarization has played a part in the uptick in attacks, the ITESO study noted. As opinions on government or policy move toward the extremes, with the first election of a leftist president in decades, it’s become more challenging “to construct the conditions for dialogue,” the report states.

Ms. Melgar hasn’t seen journalists able to find creative ways around the online attacks yet. But she does see a small silver lining.

The online attacks “are raising an alarm” and encouraging more critical thinking, she says. And in the past few weeks, as AMLO’s treatment of the media gained international attention, she’s had the impression he is dialing back some of his criticism. She hopes he continues to mind his words.

“The fact that the government criticizes the press in a climate where the lives of journalists are already in danger – it’s a form of revictimization. It devalues our work and puts a [new] kind of target on our heads.”

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4. Ramadan in the desert: Why Maan makes sure no traveler goes hungry

Modern transportation has drastically cut travel times the world over, but the middle of the desert is still remote. And for Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca, Maan is still a last outpost of hospitality.

Peter

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The Jordanian town of Maan has stood for centuries as the last oasis for travelers and pilgrims heading east to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Since the eighth century, residents have offered travelers As Sabeel – rest and refuge in the name of God.

It wasn’t just hospitality, but a religious duty. And for good reason: Between Maan and Medina lay 500 miles of scorching desert where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. During Ramadan, when Muslims fast between dawn and dusk, Maan residents make it a mission to feed pilgrims their fast-breaking iftar meal.

Some 50 volunteers are preparing 700 chickens and 800 pounds of rice to pass out and serve at sunset. They feed an average of 600 impoverished families and more than 600 travelers each day.

At tonight’s meal are truck drivers, Saudi tourists, pilgrims, Egyptian farmhands, Syrian refugees, and students from the local university.

“They pulled us aside and said we had no choice in the matter: We were their guests,” Mohammed, a Saudi national, says with a laugh.

As the guests finished, Maan residents, who had yet to break the fast themselves, were just beginning work on the next day’s meal.

“Who needs food?” says Mohammed Saleh, who has volunteered for 16 years. “We in Maan have something greater: faith.”

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Ramadan in the desert: Why Maan makes sure no traveler goes hungry

When Amman resident Walid Abdullah spotted a group of young hitchhikers trying to flag him down on the main highway to the port of Aqaba, he drove past without giving much notice.

When a second group of young men 100 yards later waved their arms wildly in the air, he began to wonder if he had a flat tire. Then a man stepped out in front of his car, forcing him to stop.

“They told me I had to come with them,” Mr. Abdullah said. “I was their guest, and a meal was waiting for me.”

It was no kidnapping; it was Ramadan in Maan.

Known as the gateway to the Hejaz, the Jordanian town of Maan, 60 miles west of the Saudi border, has stood for centuries as the last oasis for travelers and pilgrims heading east to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

From the beginning of the Umayyad era in the eighth century, residents in this geographically strategic town linking the Levant with the Arab Gulf would offer travelers As Sabeel – rest and refuge in the name of God.

It wasn’t just hospitality, but a religious duty. And for good reason: Between Maan and Medina lay 500 miles of scorching desert where temperatures can exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit and which until recently had few settlements.

For caravan traders and pilgrims heading to Mecca, Maan marked the last chance for days to stock up on clean water, supplies, food, medical help, and a good night’s sleep.

Even today, the first rest stop after Maan on the pilgrimage route is Tabuk, Saudi Arabia, 150 miles away. By car, the trip to Medina takes 10 hours, and more than 14 hours nonstop to Mecca.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The town, which straddles the road to Mecca, would bustle during the hajj season, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca Muslims are required to make once in their lifetime.

The Ramadan season

But a second peak season would come during Ramadan. The holy month is a preferred time for Muslims across the world to make the non-compulsory Umrah pilgrimage out of the belief that praying at the Kaaba in Mecca while fasting elevates their prayers and rewards from God. So Maan residents would make it a mission during Ramadan to feed visiting pilgrims their fast-breaking iftar meal at sunset.

In 2002, the town of 50,000 decided to pull its efforts together into one organized campaign, “As Sabeel Maan.”

“Throughout the generations for over 1,000 years, families continued the tradition of hosting and feeding travelers and pilgrims, it is part of their heritage,” says Abdullah Al Hussan, Maan historian and cultural writer. “Today, As Sabeel is an organized continuation of that tradition.”

On a donated two-acre plot of land on the main road to Saudi Arabia near the town center, volunteers in a tent and a simple concrete kitchen are busy preparing hundreds of iftar meals to pass out and serve at sunset.

Here, students, retirees, and men who take unpaid leave from work carry on 24-hour shifts to receive donations, cook, clean, deliver meals, and flag down and serve iftar guests.

“As Sabeel is Maan residents performing good deeds for God and their fellow man and woman, no matter who they are,” says Abu Hareth Al Qureishi, As Sabeel Maan organizer, as young men shovel vats of rice onto platters.

He oversees 50 men who feed an average of 600 impoverished families in the area and more than 600 travelers each day.

It is a grueling schedule.

Taylor Luck
Volunteers prepare rice hours ahead of the iftar meal at As Sabeel Maan in Maan, Jordan on May 16, 2019.

After a night of cleaning and following dawn prayers, the volunteers start cutting and prepping 700 chickens and 800 pounds of rice. Soon, 14 giant pots four feet in diameter would be bubbling with aromatic spices, rice, and chicken or other meat. 

Everything at As Sabeel Maan comes by way of donations from the local community, organized a month ahead of time.

Contributions can be as large as a shepherd donating a ton of lamb or camel meat, or as small as a bag of rice. Some Maan residents living abroad in the Gulf wire back home as much as $3,500, which pays for an entire day’s meals. The town raises an estimated $140,000 in donations and food for the month.

“We take all donations big or small. Blessings are not based on the size of the good deed, but the intention in your heart,” Mr. Al Qureishi says as residents drive up with cartons of water and dates from their homes two hours before sunset.

Roadside assistance

While volunteers passing out bags of dates and water to drivers shortly before dusk is a common sight in much of the Muslim world during Ramadan, Maan takes it to a completely different level.

Abu Jaber and a group of his friends and neighbors formed their own informal As Sabeel, stationing themselves each afternoon on the Desert Highway running from Amman to Aqaba, two miles from the outskirts of Maan.

The young men flag down trucks, buses, traffic cops, and passenger cars at a speed bump 50 yards ahead of the turnoff for Maan.

If they cannot convince the drivers to head to As Sabeel Maan for their iftar meal, they hand out bags of fruit, yogurt, dates, and water for all – no exceptions.

“We make sure everyone on this road is fed by sunset – tourists, the police, construction workers, families,” says Mr. Jaber as his volunteer crew stops a tourist bus. They motion the driver to roll down his window and pass through a dozen bags of fruit and yogurt to the eager Jordanian driver and bewildered tourists.

“This is not just for Muslims, this generosity is for all travelers and for all of God’s creations.”

One night’s gathering

In Maan, with sunset approaching, the As Sabeel tent is still empty, and volunteers roam the main street, looking for foreign license plates and unfamiliar faces to flag down.

In the kitchen, volunteers prepare 40 giant platters of rice and chicken kabseh.

As soon as they take out the trays to the tent, some 300 people appear like a sudden desert mirage.

At tonight’s meal are Jordanians driving to Aqaba for the weekend, truck drivers, Saudi tourists, Umrah pilgrims, Egyptian farmhands, Syrian refugees, and Jordanian students at the local university who were unable to travel home for the weekend.

“They pulled us aside and said we had no choice in the matter: We were their guests,” Mohammed, a Saudi national heading to Amman with his family, says with a laugh. “Maan has become famous among Muslims for hospitality.”

Fifteen minutes later, as the guests finished dining, Maan residents, who had yet to break the fast themselves, were just beginning work on the next day’s meal.

“Who needs food?” says Mohammed Saleh, who has volunteered for 16 straight years. “We in Maan have something greater: faith.”

Jacob Turcotte/Staff
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5. Why it’s OK to watch cat videos

We’re often dismissive of life’s simple pleasures. But it’s those pleasures’ very simplicity that makes them worth another look. Cat videos may seem like one of the internet’s most trivial diversions. But the joy they bring cannot be denied.

Peter
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Princess, a white cat, sits on a hassock at home in London in 2016. The ubiquity of cat videos has given rise to questions about their impact. In one study, consumers of cat-related online media reported feeling more positive and energetic, and less prone to negative emotions.

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Online media has been blamed for producing a lot of negativity, from envy to narcissism to even violence. But one popular genre stands aloof from all this: the cat video.

Cat videos are often dismissed as frivolous entertainment, but it’s that very frivolity that gives them their power. “Humans have a long history of play,” says Jessica Gall Myrick, a media psychology researcher at Penn State University. “Cat videos are user generated content, so they really are a way that people are playing with the internet.” 

Dr. Myrick notes that the positive emotions associated with watching cat videos also tend to foster social tolerance. 

It’s this communal aspect that motivated filmmaker Will Braden to produce CatVideoFest, an annual film festival across the United States and Canada that benefits local animal shelters.

“We need a little distraction,” says Mr. Braden, who is known to online cat-media enthusiasts as the creator of the popular “Henri, Le Chat Noir” series of YouTube videos. “We need something that is inoffensive and fun – unapologetically fun.”

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Why it’s OK to watch cat videos

In an op-ed last year about political radicalization, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted how, when you watch enough YouTube videos on a topic, the platform has this weird way of taking things to an extreme.

“Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism,” she wrote. “Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons. It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.”

So what does the algorithm do when you binge on one of the most popular online content categories, cat videos?

“What it does is it gives you more cat videos,” says filmmaker Will Braden. “It won’t even morph into bunny videos. It will just be cat videos all the way down. I promise.”

“Maybe that’s the culmination of the internet,” he says. “Maybe the algorithms have nowhere else to go.”

Mr. Braden speaks from experience. As the producer of CatVideoFest, the annual 75-minute curated reel of feline media, he views thousands and thousands of cat videos each year, “more cat videos, arguably, than anybody on the planet,” he says. The festival, shown year-round in cinemas across the United States and Canada, raises money for local animal shelters.

His takeaway from those countless hours of viewing: Watching cat videos feels restorative. “People would come to previous shows and just grab me by the shoulders and go, ‘I needed that.’”

The internet is often blamed with promoting narcissism, envy, and even violence. Cat videos, say enthusiasts, represent a kind of oasis of purity.

“We need a little distraction,” Mr. Braden says. “We need something that is inoffensive and fun – unapologetically fun.”

First, there were cats

Before Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Buster Keaton filled the silver screen, cats did. In 1894, just a few years after inventing the kinetoscope, an early motion picture viewing device, Thomas Edison produced “Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats.” It was filmed just one month after Edison Studios captured the very first boxing match of any kind on film.

Cats’ ubiquity in media stems from their universality, says Mr. Braden, who is best known among cat-video aficionados for his YouTube series “Henri, Le Chat Noir,” a parody of French new wave cinema that stars Henri, a long-haired tuxedo cat who muses in French about his ennui. The animal’s relative lack of expressiveness creates space for the imagination.

“There’s an element of us projecting ourselves onto cats, because they can be a little bit more of a blank canvas,” he says. “Part of Henri’s success, I believe, is because it takes that to an absurd extreme.”

Mr. Braden is not the only filmmaker who finds something refreshing about watching cats frolic online. Earlier this month, Werner Herzog, one of the world’s most acclaimed directors and screenwriters, told Public Radio International that he feels “rejuvenated” after watching cat videos like this one he picked out for listeners. And, while the psychological literature on cat videos remains scant, the small amount of research that exists suggests a cat video or two might actually brighten your mood.

Worthy of study

“People are dismissive of cat videos,” says Jessica Gall Myrick, a researcher at Penn State University who specializes in media psychology. “It’s just this idea that it’s such a trivial use of our time.”

But, she says, the ubiquity of cat videos online alone should make them worthy of academic inquiry.

In 2014, Dr. Myrick, who was living in Bloomington, Indiana, at the time, sought help from her town’s most famous feline resident: Lil Bub. Dr. Myrick asked Lil Bub’s owner to help find survey participants among the diminutive cat’s massive social media following. 

“Within a day I had nearly 7,000 people take part in my study,” says Dr. Myrick.

She found that most participants reported that cat videos, as well as GIFs and memes, improved their moods. Consumers of cat-related online media reported feeling more positive, more energetic, and less prone to negative emotions. In other words, less like Henri. And research suggests that those are the kinds of mental states that make one less likely to draw Sartrean conclusions about other people.

“Emotions that are more positive tend to bond people,” Dr. Myrick says, “and make people more open to others who aren’t necessarily like them.”

“Humans have a long history of play,” says Dr. Myrick. “Play is thought to be adaptive and functional and good for us and helps us bond. Cat videos are user generated content, so they really are a way that people are playing with the internet.” 

Camaraderie and cats

It’s that sense of community that Mr. Braden is aiming for with his CatVideoFest, now in its third year. 

“This reel is a curated experience,” he says, “But a huge part of it is just getting together and laughing and enjoying it with a bunch of other people.”

“Everywhere we go, we benefit a local shelter or local animal welfare organization,” an aspect that, despite the logistical and accounting challenges, Mr. Braden describes as an “unchanging part of the DNA of CatVideoFest.”

After a CatVideoFest show this week in Amherst, Massachusetts, two attendees agreed it had boosted their mood, and that cat videos represented one of life’s uncomplicated joys.

“We like a good laugh,” said local author Jane Roy Brown, who praised the videos’ “pure silliness.”

Another attendee, permaculture farmer Sue Bridge, noted that cat videos have a way of resisting ironic detachment.

“You can’t stand at a distance with it,” she says. “It revives you.”

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The Monitor's View

Why the SAT needs a character check

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To help more disadvantaged students get into higher education, the College Board has come up with a scoring metric beyond its own SAT test. The new tool is designed to help admissions officers detect if applicants have risen above limitations in their social or economic circumstances by expressing a particular character trait: resourcefulness.

The new metric looks at 15 factors in neighborhoods and schools that might negatively influence a candidate’s college readiness. If applicants come from a highly adverse background yet have decent but perhaps not stellar SAT scores, a college might then admit them. Such students have shown a conscientiousness that defies the notion that demographics is destiny.

This predictor of resourcefulness highlights more than tenacity or resilience. Resourcefulness shows an ability to seek support outside one’s self. It requires an inherent purpose in learning. The new tool “shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” says David Coleman, the College Board’s chief executive.

Graduates who have excelled despite their hardships are highly desired by today’s employers. They have found a capacity beyond perceived limitations of either place or potential.

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Why the SAT needs a character check

To help more disadvantaged students get into higher education, the College Board has come up with a scoring metric beyond its own SAT test, which measures only verbal and math skills. The new tool is designed to help admissions officers detect if applicants have risen above limitations in their social or economic circumstances by expressing a particular character trait: resourcefulness. 

The new metric, called the Environmental Context Dashboard, has been tried by 50 colleges over the past year and will be rolled out to 150 institutions this fall. Relying on public data, it looks at 15 factors in neighborhoods and schools that might negatively influence a candidate’s college readiness.

These contextual statistics include crime rates, education levels, joblessness, and the number of households that receive food stamps. If applicants come from a highly adverse background yet have decent but perhaps not stellar SAT scores, a college might then admit them. Such students have shown a conscientiousness that defies the notion that demographics is destiny. They have discovered they do not have to be victims of vicissitude.

This predictor of resourcefulness highlights more than tenacity or resilience. Resourcefulness shows an ability to seek support outside one’s self. It requires an inherent purpose in learning. The new tool “shines a light on students who have demonstrated remarkable resourcefulness to overcome challenges and achieve more with less,” says David Coleman, the College Board’s chief executive.

The “dashboard” also has the advantage of not taking race into consideration in admissions, a practice being increasingly closed off by the Supreme Court and many states. At the same time, it helps diversify campuses. And in emphasizing a key quality for academic success, it may help prevent lawsuits that claim discrimination in admissions. One school already using the metric, Florida State University, reports it has helped raise nonwhite enrollment to 42% from 37%.

The tool is not an absolute measure of resourcefulness. It misses other types of circumstances, such as personal or family problems. Colleges must weigh many factors in admissions. Still, it could lead to a greater focus on character in education beyond the traditional pursuit of knowledge and career skills. Graduates who have excelled despite their hardships are highly desired by today’s employers. They have found a capacity beyond perceived limitations of either place or potential.

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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.

Commemorating unselfed love

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For today’s contributor, an Anzac Day service last month and next week’s Memorial Day observance have prompted a deep dive into the power of a divinely impelled spirit of selflessness.

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Commemorating unselfed love

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Attending a dawn memorial service for Anzac Day (commemorating the sacrifice and service of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand) last month, my thought naturally turned to my father, a World War II United States Army Air Corps veteran. Before the war, he was just another Kansas farm boy who wanted to fly. But then came the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he and his friends were called to serve their country in war.

Like many veterans of that era, my father rarely spoke of his experiences. Most of my knowledge of that part of his life was gained during a reunion of his fighter group 50-some years after the war. He was remembered by those with whom he flew as a gentle man and a selfless pilot. That stood out to me because gentle and selfless is how I always thought of him too.

When his tour of duty was over, gratefully, Dad returned home. But while he was physically whole, he suffered from a deep depression. A neighbor, knowing the severity of my dad’s case, gave my mother a copy of Mary Baker Eddy’s book “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” the textbook of Christian Science. She read on page one, “The prayer that reforms the sinner and heals the sick is an absolute faith that all things are possible to God, – a spiritual understanding of Him, an unselfed love.”

Mom later explained that she knew from the moment she read that very first page that she had found something that could help my dad. She recognized in him the courageous, unselfed love that characterized so many of our servicemen.

Unselfed love is a powerful quality because it has a divine source: God, divine Love itself. This Love, Christian Science teaches, is infinite and universal. It’s something we all naturally reflect as the children, the spiritual image and likeness, of God. It’s the source of the love by which we can care for and help others, no matter how difficult or dangerous the circumstances, with loyalty, respect, honor, and integrity. God’s love gives us strength in adversity, protection in danger, and a capacity to exceed personal limits and overcome fear when helping others. Divine Love’s blessing leaves no one out.

Christ Jesus exemplified this unselfed love in all that he did. He showed how to discern between the material personality that seems to be ours and the spiritual selfhood that reflects divine Love, God. And he showed how we can better serve God and help and heal others by increasingly putting off the former for the latter. He said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). To me, then, this speaks not of animal courage or a lack of regard for oneself but to a divinely impelled spirit of love that we express in the way we think and act in our lives.

Science and Health explains: “Your influence for good depends upon the weight you throw into the right scale. The good you do and embody gives you the only power obtainable.…

“Whatever holds human thought in line with unselfed love, receives directly the divine power” (p. 192).

My mom recognized that such a love could only strengthen my dad, not leave him battle-scarred and despondent. She prayed for a better understanding of unselfed love as more than a personal human trait, but as an expression of the permanent spiritual relation that we all have to God, the source and maintainer of true health.

As my mom selflessly devoted herself to his case through her spiritual study and prayer, Dad was definitively and permanently healed of the post-wartime-service depression.

As we approach Memorial Day in the United States, may we unite in prayer that recognizes the power of divine Love, which each and every one of us has a God-given ability to feel and express. To me, striving to live more of unselfed love each day is a profound way to honor those who have served, sacrificed, and even given their lives for the cause of peace, security, and well-being throughout the world.

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In honor of sacrifice

David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier/AP
Randy Hartsock places U.S. flags on the embankment outside the American Legion Hackler-Wood Post 145 on May 23 in Bristol, Tennessee, in preparation for Memorial Day weekend.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )
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In Our Next Issue

( May 28th, 2019 )

Come back Tuesday, when we’ll have a valedictory piece from longtime congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer about the joys and woes of working in the Capitol. She’ll even reveal her tricks for buttonholing lawmakers.

Monitor Daily Podcast

May 24, 2019
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