September 14, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episode
September 14, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episode
JUDY WOODRUFF: Good evening. I'm Judy Woodruff.
On the "NewsHour" tonight: President Trump and Joe Biden find another dividing line:
Is climate change driving the fires and extreme weather?
Then, we are on the ground in Oregon, as the wildfires are raging, taking lives and forcing
thousands from their homes.
And COVID in a war zone -- how the pandemic is making a dire situation worse in Syria.
MOHANNAD ISMAIL, Displaced (through translator): The situation in the camp is very dire. Even
with masks, cleaning supplies, with this coronavirus, we have kids very close to each other. I mean,
it's a crime, how we're all living so close to each other.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All that and more on tonight's "PBS NewsHour."
JUDY WOODRUFF: Wildfires are threatening more of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California
tonight, as dry, windy conditions return in places.
So far, at least 35 people have died, and thousands have been forced to flee. Half-a-dozen
small towns have burned, and drone footage today showed entire neighborhoods in Southern
Oregon turned to ashes. Streets were stained red by fire retardant. We will look at the
situation in Oregon later in the program.
The wildfires exposed two starkly different points of view on the campaign trail.
Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage with a look at how President Trump and Joe Biden
divide on climate change.
LISA DESJARDINS: In California, President Trump arrived to assess a sweeping disaster,
the latest round of wildfires scorching the Western U.S. He met with officials near Sacramento.
DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: We want to thank these incredible people,
the first responders, service members.
LISA DESJARDINS: Critics have said the president should have paid more attention to the fires,
which started last month.
At the least, his approach has revealed a chasm in environmental philosophy with his
presidential opponent, Democrat Joe Biden. While scientists increasingly raise concerns
about climate change, that it is driving more extreme weather like the Western blazes, the
president has blamed poor forest management.
Nearly 60 percent of California's forests are federally managed. In an exchange with
the state's natural resources secretary, the president today faced a direct confrontation
on the issue and bluntly denied science.
WADE CROWFOOT, California Secretary for Natural Resources: We want to work with you to really
recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forests, and actually work together
with that science.
That science is going, going to be key, because, if we ignore that science and sort of put
our head in the sand and think it's all about vegetation management, we're not going to
succeed together protecting Californians.
DONALD TRUMP: OK. It'll start getting cooler.
WADE CROWFOOT: I wish...
DONALD TRUMP: You just -- you just watch.
WADE CROWFOOT: I wish science agreed with you.
DONALD TRUMP: Well, I don't think science knows, actually.
LISA DESJARDINS: This while, in Wilmington, Delaware, today, former Vice President Biden
was explicit, saying climate change is a fundamental issue of our time.
JOSEPH BIDEN (D), Presidential Candidate: The unrelenting impact of climate change affects
every single, solitary one of us. If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the
White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze?
LISA DESJARDINS: Also today, another contrast from Biden, though one without words.
As he does regularly, Biden wore a mask when he and his wife went to vote in a state primary.
President Trump, however, has resumed holding large-scale rallies, including one last night
near Las Vegas. Thousands packed into a warehouse indoors, violating Nevada state guidelines
banning any gathering over 50 people.
In addition, while those behind the president largely wore masks, most of the audience facing
him did not. CNN reported that no broadcast networks had reporters inside out of health
concerns. The president doubled down on his reopening push.
DONALD TRUMP: We are not shutting down our country.
DONALD TRUMP: A shutdown will destroy the lives and dreams of tens of millions of Americans.
LISA DESJARDINS: Before the rally, Nevada's Democratic Governor Steve Sisolak tweeted
the president was -- quote -- "taking reckless and selfish actions that are putting countless
lives in danger."
President Trump told The Las Vegas Review-Journal Sunday he did not think he was bound by the
Then today, Vice President Pence held an indoor rally in Janesville, Wisconsin, where cases
of COVID-19 have been ticking up. As he draws crowds, the president is also looking to target
his campaign, including to Latino voters, like this weekend with this roundtable in
It's a vital group for both campaigns, and in key states like Florida, where polls show
Democrat Joe Biden is slipping with Latino voters. Florida is where billionaire and former
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes to make a difference, pledging to spend $100
million to aid Biden there.
Biden himself heads to the Sunshine State tomorrow for events with veterans and Hispanic
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In the day's other news: The U.S. Gulf Coast battened down for Hurricane
Sally's arrival later tonight. It's expected to hit east of New Orleans, with up to two
feet of rain. Another hurricane struck Bermuda today, and two more are brewing in the Atlantic.
We get more from Ken Graham, director of the National Hurricane Center.
He spoke with our Stephanie Sy earlier.
Ken Graham, thank you so much for joining us.
The governor of Louisiana said that, for a lot of people, Hurricane Sally seemed to have
come out of nowhere, rapidly forming into a hurricane just in the last day. What is
the -- current forecast can you tell us about where it is heading and how strong it will
KEN GRAHAM, Director, National Hurricane Center: Yes, looking at 100 mile-an-hour winds right
now, so, significant hurricane.
And, actually, looking at this, I mean, the tropical storm-force winds extend out over
100 miles, but the real story here is slow, and that is a big problem. So, if you think
about this being 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, this is 1:00 p.m. Wednesday.
In 24 hours, that's not a lot of movement. So, the problem is, with a slow storm like
that, that just compounds the issues with rainfall. Storm surge. It's going to be water.
You're going to see that storm surge from Louisiana all the way back to Florida and
torrential dangerous rains as well from Mississippi, Alabama, the Florida Panhandle, even into
So, significant issue with the water, slow storms, that just compounds the issues.
STEPHANIE SY: Yes.
And a lot of times, there's focus on the center of the hurricane and when it hits landfall.
With Hurricane Sally, are we more concerned with the prolonged impacts?
KEN GRAHAM: Absolutely.
Let's look at that. So, you have the cone. So, the cone really is where two-thirds of
the time we expect to have the center, but the impacts are well outside of it. I mean,
you look at this rainfall, well outside of the cone. That's a huge area of rainfall.
But the other part of this is the dangerous storm surge. That's historically the leading
cause of fatalities in these tropical systems. So, you look at some of these values, from
Southeast Louisiana, to portions of the Mississippi coast seven to 11 feet, but even six to nine
feet, four to six feet, five to eight in Mobile Bay, so from Alabama, the Florida Panhandle,
the Mississippi coast to Louisiana, just dangerous storm surge.
And that -- it makes it very dangerous to travel. And a lot of those areas, if the local
officials tell you to leave, it's just so important to not be in those dangerous locations.
STEPHANIE SY: I know you all were predicting a very active season. You're now monitoring
five Atlantic cyclones at the same time, only the second time in recorded history for that
to happen, even running out of names for these hurricanes.
Ken Graham have with the National Hurricane Center, thank you so much for the latest.
KEN GRAHAM: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: There's also new evidence that the Arctic is rapidly heating.
Scientists in Denmark and Greenland report that a huge chunk has broken away from the
Greenland ice shelf. A satellite study estimates it to be about 42 square miles. That is nearly
the size of San Francisco.
Cases of COVID-19 topped 29 million worldwide today, as the pandemic persists. That includes
more than 6.5 million in the United States. But new cases in the U.S. have declined about
17 percent from two weeks ago. The rate of new deaths is also falling, even as total
deaths nationwide approach 195,000.
The besieged president of Belarus traveled to neighboring Russia today, seeking support
against mass protests after 26 years in power. Russia's President Vladimir Putin met with
Alexander Lukashenko in Sochi. Putin promised a $1.5 billion loan. He also warned against
VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian President (through translator): We see what kind of domestic
political events are happening in relation to the election in Belarus. You know our position
well. We are for Belarusians to sort out this situation themselves, without any tips and
pressure from outside. They should come to a common decision.
JUDY WOODRUFF: On Sunday, an estimated 150,000 people took to the streets of Minsk, the Belarusian
capital. They say that Lukashenko rigged his reelection in August and must step down.
Back in this country, a federal appeals court today upheld President Trump's decision to
strip protections that let half-a-million immigrants stay in the U.S. They were admitted
on humanitarian grounds from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan, and some have
been here for decades. The case could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Authorities across the Los Angeles area are searching for the gunman who fired into a
squad car and wounded two sheriff's deputies on Saturday. It also sparked an anti-police
protest outside the hospital where the deputies are being treated. They are expected to recover.
Software developer Oracle has won the competition for TikTok's U.S. operations. The video-sharing
app's Chinese owner announced the proposed partnership today, but did not call it a sale.
President Trump says that TikTok's U.S. operations must be sold or shut down to prevent data
being passed to China.
And on Wall Street, the oracle TikTok agreement and other major corporate deals fueled a new
rally. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 327 points to close at 27993. The Nasdaq rose
203 points and the S&P 500 added 42.
Still to come on the "NewsHour": on the ground in Oregon, as wildfires ravage the West; how
the pandemic makes a dire situation worse in Syria; our Politics Monday team breaks
down the latest in the race for the White House; and much more.
We focus now on the terrible fires and devastation out in the Western part of the country and
some of the factors that make this all worse.
William Brangham will look at some of those reasons with Miles O'Brien shortly.
But we're going to begin with an on-the-ground report from Oregon, where more than a million
acres have burned, twice the average of most years. Search-and-rescue teams are continuing
to look for missing people. At least 22 are missing so far, and more than 40,000 people
have been forced to flee their homes.
Special correspondent Cat Wise has our report, starting from south of Portland.
CAT WISE: The smoky streets of Molalla, Oregon, were eerily quiet this weekend. This rural
town of 9,000, about 30 miles south of Portland, was under mandatory evacuations orders until
Sunday night. The Riverside Fire has been threatening the community and other nearby
towns for days.
With firefighters stretched thin across the state, some residents have defied evacuation
orders and have been battling sections of the fire line on their own.
Over the weekend, we met up with a group of local volunteers on the outskirts of Molalla
who were filling water trucks and driving them to the front lines, less than a mile
up the road.
Enoch Wilson, a local landowner, was one of those coordinating the efforts. He says he's
grateful for the additional firefighting support the community has received over the past several
days, but it was largely residents who kept the flames at bay before government help arrived.
ENOCH WILSON, Oregon: The only reason that this thing has even curbed whatsoever is because
the locals and the farmers here on this hill and the volunteers around this area have come
up, and they're actually digging the break lines themselves.
GAYLA HANSEN, Oregon: I think we have a good right to be pissed. That fire burned. They
could have put that thing out. We don't fight fires in Oregon. We need to fight them. We
need to catch them right as they start.
CAT WISE: A spokesman for the Oregon Fire Marshal's Office said today that more than
20 firefighting teams are battling 11 fires across the state where existing resources
While some in the community chose to remain and defend their property from the flames,
many others in the region remain evacuated.
The Elks Lodge in Milwaukie, Oregon, has become a safe haven for some of those evacuees. Around
100 people, including families with children, have been camped out here for the past few
days. A local company served up hot pancakes. Other donations have flowed in from the community,
including food, water, tents, and toys for the kids.
Scott White, the current head of the lodge, has been coordinating relief efforts.
SCOTT WHITE, Oregon: Nobody knows what to do. They left their houses basically with
whatever they had on their shoulders, and they just left town.
You know, we have gone through the pandemic with COVID-19, and we thought we were seeing
the bottom side of that and going back to normal. And then this happened.
CAT WISE: Thirty-three-year-old Tiffany Eatherton is one of the many struggling with the impacts
from the wildfires and the pandemic. She lives in nearby Canby with her husband and four
When we met up with her, she was worn to the bone, after sleeping in a tent for the past
TIFFANY EATHERTON, Oregon: I'm exhausted.
CAT WISE: She says the past six months have been difficult, with school closures, financial
strains, and now evacuation.
TIFFANY EATHERTON: The second I sit down and I get a minute to take a deep breath, every
worry throws itself at me, everything, from when my husband's going to go to work to what
the next thing my kids are going to eat, to what's the next fit they're going to throw,
to where we're going to drive next, or if we have to leave in the middle of the night
or be able to go home and not find a fire at our doorstep the next day.
DR. JENNIFER VINES, Lead Health Officer, Tri-County Region: I think people have been stretched
so thin, to the breaking point.
CAT WISE: Dr. Jennifer Vines is the lead health officer for the region, which includes Portland
and evacuated areas in Clackamas County. She says there has been a recent increase in the
number of anxiety-related calls to the regional crisis center.
DR. JENNIFER VINES: People have called coronavirus unprecedented. People have now called this
wildfire in our backyard unprecedented, the level of air quality, the poor air quality.
We're sort of running out of adjectives to describe this point in time. And mixed in
with all of this, in Portland in particular, and Multnomah County, has been a real reckoning
around how we treat African American, Black, indigenous and people of color in this country.
And those same groups suffer disproportionately from the poor air quality. They suffer disproportionately
CAT WISE: As we spoke yesterday, visibility from the roof of the county health department
in downtown Portland was about a quarter-of-a-mile.
The region's air quality has been the worst in the world for several days.
DR. JENNIFER VINES: We are seeing an increase, a sharp increase in emergency department visits
for respiratory complaints, as we would expect with an air quality event like this.
Many of those visits seem to be related to asthma and people directly relating their
visit to the smoke.
CAT WISE: Dorian Zuniga is an outreach worker for the Portland nonprofit Transition Projects,
which helps people experiencing homelessness find housing.
Since last Thursday, the organization and others have handed out more than 26,000 N95
masks provided by the city and county.
DORIAN ZUNIGA, Transition Projects: Because of their lack of communication, with no radios,
no phones, no Internet, being secluded away from people, they don't know what's going
on. They don't know that this is not actual fog, this is smoke, and this is smoke from
And, unfortunately, you know, that puts them in a bad position. Many clients are talking
about heart, you know, pain in the chest, a little tightness in the chest, they can't
breathe. Some of their tents are even filling up with smoke.
CAT WISE: Zuniga is encouraging people to escape the smoke and go to the Oregon Convention
Center, where a large emergency wildfire shelter has been set up.
But he says some people are concerned about going inside due to COVID-19.
Back in Milwaukie at the Elks Lodge, evacuee Tiffany Eatherton and her family were loading
up their car to go check on their home. They told us they expected it to be unscathed,
but for so many other families, a haze of uncertainty still looms.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Oregon.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As we heard earlier, the impact of climate change was very much in
the news today. It came up during President Trump's visit to California. And the Democratic
nominee Joe, Biden, lambasted the president's policies regarding climate change.
So, our science correspondent, Miles O'Brien, is here to look at what we know and what we
don't and the other factors that might be contributing to these wildfires out West.
Miles, great to see you, as always.
So, we know the science is quite clear that climate change certainly contributes to, exacerbates
the problems that these wildfires are demonstrating.
Can you remind us a little about the science of that?
MILES O'BRIEN: Yes, William, exacerbate is a good word.
Climate change isn't starting these fires, but it is creating the dry conditions that
make it easier to have these fires ignite in the first place, spread faster, become
bigger, so-called mega-fires, whether they're caused by humans or by lightning, as has happened
in many cases in California this year.
If you look at the annual number of burned acres in the West, it has increased just in
lockstep with the change in climate. From year to year, the area burned up correlates
almost directly to temperature variations.
And if you look over a 30-to-50-year period, the numbers and the amount of fires and the
acreage burned correlates exactly with a 2.5-degree Fahrenheit increase in the temperature of
the climate overall, which is what we have experienced.
Park Williams is a hydro-climatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Observatory.
PARK WILLIAMS, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory: As you warm up the atmosphere, it can hold
more moisture. And so it can pull more moisture out of forest ecosystems, therefore drying
them out faster.
And so then, as long as you get spark and wind, and you have got enough to burn, then
you're going to burn it.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK, so we know climate change is playing a role, potentially major role,
in this. But what else can explain this incredible devastation caused by these fires?
MILES O'BRIEN: Yes, it's worth reminding everybody that fire is just a natural part of the ecosystem
in the West.
And what has really changed is the number of people who are living in close proximity
to it. There are more and more people building in the woods, in areas that burn. Researchers
have kind of a wonky term for it. They call it the wildland-urban interface, or WUI for
Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder, found, between 1992 and 2015, Americans
built 32 million new homes in the WUI. And when you have more people living in the forests,
you have more people starting forest fires. Sounds like common sense.
But, as it turns out, 97 percent of the fires that actually destroy a home are started by
people in the first place.
And here's the thing. There's no end in sight to this building boom in the woods.
Geographer and fire ecologist Jennifer Balch is with the University of Colorado, Boulder.
JENNIFER BALCH, University of Colorado Boulder: Eighty percent of the potential landscapes
that could be built into have yet to be built into. And so more and more people are going
to want to move into landscapes that are flammable.
And we currently have about 1.8 million homes that are threatened at high risk of threat
from wildfire in the WUI. And that's about $300 billion worth of value.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, if more and more of us are moving into the wilderness, are there
things that we can do to manage those wildernesses better, so that we can reduce the risk of
I mean, this is certainly something President Trump keeps stressing as a major issue.
MILES O'BRIEN: Yes, the president talked about raking the forest, and there was a lot of
controversy about that.
But there do need to be some changes in the way we manage the forests, if people are going
to live in them. Each time we successfully put out a fire over the past 100 years, and
they -- we were very aggressive about it, the Forest Service and other enterprises doing
that, we sort of kicked the can down the road, because it just allowed more underbrush and
fuel for the fire to grow, creating more difficult problems.
So, at the U.S. Forest Service's Fire Lab in Missoula, Montana, researchers had been
spending a lot of time looking at alternatives. And one of the ideas is to thin the forests
out, tend them a little bit, and do controlled, managed, prescribed burns, burns that won't
get carried away and damage the homes, making the forest afterward less of a tinderbox.
There was a 30-acre plot of ponderosa pine there that had not burned for 100 years. They
let it be. And then, nearby, they thinned and burned to see what would happen. And that
forest, in every measurable way, is healthier, resistant to bark beetles, and less likely
to burn in mega-fire fashion, as we're seeing right now in the West.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: OK, I want to make a huge change of topic here, given the you are also
our expert, our resident expert when it comes to all things space-related.
People might have seen these headlines today that scientists believe they have found signs
of life on Venus. What happened there? What should we take away from all this?
MILES O'BRIEN: Well, above Venus would be a little more accurate.
But, yes, Venus isn't the kind of place to raise your kids, to paraphrase Elton John,
MILES O'BRIEN: Venus is -- the temperature is 900 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, the
pressure 90 times greater than that of Earth.
To think of life as we know it existing there is pretty hard to imagine. But researchers,
using telescopes at -- in Hawaii and Chile, have found signs of a gas called phosphine
in the clouds above Venus, which are a little more temperate, albeit acidic.
Now, phosphine, what do we know about that? Actually, we don't know a ton about it, except
that it's always associated with anaerobic life here on Earth, which is to say swamps
and bogs and sewage. And there's a lot of it, believe it or not, in penguin poop, believe
it or not.
So, what could it be? Could there be some sort of life-form connected to the phosphine
on Venus? The researchers looked at potential chemical and geologic processes, volcanoes,
meteors, lightning. None of it supports the amount of phosphine they found.
And so it raises a huge question. We have been looking for so long for signs of life
on Mars. Could it be our closest neighbor Venus has been overlooked in all this?
NASA is thinking about sending some missions to Venus or looking at four possible missions
on the horizon. Two of them would be to Venus. And maybe this will give a little more credence
for those teams to win those proposals.
And maybe we can go to Venus. And who knows? Maybe that will surprise us and we will find
Venusian penguins. I don't know.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Venusian penguins. I love it.
Miles O'Brien, always good to see you. Thank you so much for your intel.
MILES O'BRIEN: You're welcome.
JUDY WOODRUFF: After years of war and economic deprivation, Syria is poorly equipped to handle
COVID-19. But the virus is spreading fast in government-controlled Damascus and in the
rebel-held Northwest, where, as Nick Schifrin reports, it's targeting the most vulnerable.
NICK SCHIFRIN: A few miles from the Turkish border, there is no refuge from the wind and
the heat and no refuge from COVID.
Rasha Em Hussain gathers cloth from her neighbors to sew masks. She started with her own kids,
and then realized the need was much greater.
RASHA EM HUSSAIN, Displaced (through translator): I'm worried about the children in the camp.
I'm going to hopefully make masks for everyone. This is a humanitarian service I can provide.
NICK SCHIFRIN: She fits masks on children whose country has been at war longer than
they have been alive. Northwest Syria has over 260 coronavirus cases, including at an
internally displaced persons camp where social distancing is impossible and no sanitation
systems prevents proper hand washing.
Children are especially vulnerable because, many already suffer from a parasite spread
by sand flies. And after Russia and China restricted humanitarian aid to a single border
crossing, some Syrians haven't received any help in four months.
Mohannad Ismail has three children with learning disabilities.
MOHANNAD ISMAIL, Displaced (through translator): The situation in the camp is very dire. Even
with masks, cleaning supplies, with this coronavirus, we have kids very close to each other. I mean,
it's a crime, how we're all living so close to each other.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Idlib is the final stronghold for anti-regime forces. In Idlib City, volunteers
disinfect their own mosques and streets.
But in this bustling market, nobody stays six feet apart. To get into the market, visitors
walk through a homemade disinfectant machine. But those who get sick have few places for
The U.N. says Russia and the regime have targeted more than 80 medical facilities since December.
Half of all hospitals are out of service. In this COVID clinic, doctors fear for the
DR. SALAH AL DEEN SALAH, Syrian American Medical Society (through translator): We have a fragile
health system. That's why we expect a disaster if the disease spreads, God forbid. If the
virus spreads here, like it's spread in the regime-controlled areas, we will really struggle.
NICK SCHIFRIN: The regime controls all of Syria, in red outside the northwest and northeast
in gray. And COVID's epicenter is the heart of the Assad regime's power, Damascus.
What are the conditions in Damascus hospitals today?
We spoke to a physician who asked us to keep him anonymous. He's had enough.
MAN (through translator): The government is not concerned at all with treating this disease.
It has shown it is completely unable to deal with COVID-19.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Officially, Syria has 3,500 COVID cases and 150 deaths, but experts say,
for every death reported in Damascus alone, there are 50 to 100 not reported.
MAN (through translator): The government only allowed specific individuals that they trusted
to enter the sections in hospitals that had COVID-19 patients. We weren't allowed, as
physicians, to even use the name COVID-19, or ask how many infections there were, or
even have access to patients.
NICK SCHIFRIN: A lack of hospital beds led people to self-treat at home. Damascus doctors
took to Facebook to offer medical advice. And COVID patients had to buy their own oxygen.
MAN (through translator): The price of oxygen is getting very expensive due to the demand,
more expensive than what a normal person can afford. And many times, people are dying because
they are not able to get oxygen.
EMMA BEALS, Syria in Context: So, in a lot of these cases, people are dying in their
NICK SCHIFRIN: Emma Beals is a researcher on Syria and editor of Syria in Context.
EMMA BEALS: And then what happens is, these guys in these hazmat suits come. And they
are taking them away to these very large new cemeteries and burying them there.
NICK SCHIFRIN: That's the only visual proof of increased deaths. These satellite images
show a cemetery just outside Damascus. A June 27 image shows what researchers believe are
burials. On August 4, that's a collection of ambulances and cars, and from January to
June to August multiple rows of new graves.
Medical workers ARE often the first fatalities. At least 65 of them have died, according to
a list kept by Syrian-American activist Dr. Zaher Sahloul, who lives in Chicago.
DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL, President, MedGlobal: The people are overwhelmed, and there is no one
to help. The government clearly is not there to help.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Damascus doctors are vulnerable.
Do you have enough personal protective equipment?
MAN (through translator): There is nothing provided here. We are in need of everything.
The question should be the opposite, not about what we have, but what we don't have, because
we are in need of everything.
DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: In my hospital, we have more ventilators than all of Syria. I mean,
I haven't heard of any patient who's being treated in Chicago or in the U.S. or in Italy
with ventilators at home.
NICK SCHIFRIN: At first, the regime took COVID seriously. In March, schools closed and the
government imposed curfews and travel restrictions.
But that exacerbated an economic crisis. Food prices soared; 80 percent of Syrians are now
below the poverty line. And COVID got so bad, even some supporters of Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad spoke out.
SHADI HILWA, Pro-Assad Journalist (through translator): All the private hospitals that
receive corona cases are full. Now the private hospitals contain large numbers of COVID-19
cases, while we have very few respirators.
NICK SCHIFRIN: There are also very few tests. Last month, the government opened a testing
center. It quickly reached capacity, and had to close. Hundreds waiting outside were sent
You're criticizing the regime. We are keeping you anonymous. How dangerous is it to use
some of the words that you are saying and talk to us about the extent of the problem?
MAN (through translator): Any criticism of the regime, whether it's about public health
or any other issue, risks detention or death. Why am I talking? Because somebody must talk.
There is always a need for someone to be a voice of truth.
NICK SCHIFRIN: Whether in Damascus or Northwest Syria, the truth is, COVID is spreading in
a country that can least afford it.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
JUDY WOODRUFF: With exactly 50 days until Election Day, the presidential campaigns are
offering two very different messages on the wildfires and on coronavirus.
Our Politics Monday team is here to examine it all and more. And that's Amy Walter of
The Cook Political Report and host of public radio's "Politics With Amy Walter" and Tamara
Keith of NPR. She also co-hosts the "NPR Politics Podcast."
So, hello to both of you. These wildfires, so tragic to watch them. They have exposed
the differences again in views between President Trump and Joe Biden, Amy, on climate change,
the president saying today science doesn't know, Joe Biden calling the president a climate
What is driving these very different messages?
AMY WALTER, The Cook Political Report: Well, Judy, these messages really reflect the polarization
of our country as well.
In fact, when you look at where Americans are on the issue of climate change and the
impact that climate change is having, both for, like, personal reasons, but also its
impact on the economy, will it make it harder if we implement climate change policies to
keep the economy going?
And what we saw -- this was a recent Pew poll - - that about half of Democrats say, you know
what, changes to take care of climate change are going to help the economy. Half of Republicans
said it is going to hurt the economy.
And that's kind of where you see the president and where you see Joe Biden, right? Joe Biden
is saying, if we fix these things, we're going to create new jobs. You hear the president
saying, hey, guess what is going to happen in Joe Biden's America? We're going to get
rid of the jobs that so many people rely on, whether they're fracking in Pennsylvania or
coal mining in West Virginia.
Where most Americans are, though, is more closely on the side of Joe Biden on the issue
of climate change. And especially those suburban voters that Donald Trump says he wants to
win back over, well, for them, climate change is a reality.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet, Tam, we heard -- we heard it earlier in the show in Lisa's report,
the president saying to the panel of experts there in California, he said it's going to
get colder, just defying what the science shows.
TAMARA KEITH, National Public Radio: Yes, right, and saying that science may not be
right on this.
And that is completely and totally on brand for President Trump. This is a message that
he's campaigning on. It's not a gaffe if you say it on purpose and it's what you believe.
And President Trump is very much -- he's pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord.
He is saying that, if Joe Biden wins, that - - as Amy said, that Joe Biden would put you
back in the Paris climate accord, and that would hurt the economy.
President Trump has repeatedly shied away from climate science. And what Joe Biden is
trying to do and what he did with that speech and what he's been doing in other venues is
essentially saying that President Trump is anti-science or doesn't go with the science,
and that that is putting Americans at risk.
Joe Biden is trying to combine the concerns about climate change with concerns about the
handling of the coronavirus.
For President Trump, as Amy says, if you look at the polling, you have in the -- according
to a Pew poll, the number of Republicans who think that climate change is a very big issue
is in the teens. So, President Trump, for his base, this is a perfectly fine message.
And, of course, for Joe Biden's base, his message is right on right on cue and could
help motivate young voters who care about this issue a lot.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And then, Amy, still related to science, of course, is the pandemic, the
Joe Biden is going -- he's wearing a mask wherever he goes. He's criticizing the president.
The president continues to hold rallies, most recently in Nevada, defying the state rule
or regulation, law against wearing masks and against having over a certain number of people
indoors, just directly flouting what he -- what the rules are.
AMY WALTER: And what so many Americans also agree with.
I mean, Judy, if you ask the question of voters, do you think that we should be wearing masks,
do you wear masks, overwhelming majorities agree with both of those sentiments, and they
do wear masks.
We saw this in the conventions too, Judy. It kind of felt like we are living not just
in two different Americas, but in two different planets. On the Democratic side, their Democratic
Convention, everyone was wearing masks, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris speaking to empty
rooms, right, going out, socially distanced, as they were watching their fireworks on the
day of Joe Biden's speech.
And, of course, Republicans gathering on the White House lawn. The president really loves
a crowd, and he wants a crowd, and he believes that you can't campaign without bunches of
people around you cheering for you.
It is not, however, what Americans are doing. And it is not within, as you pointed out,
Judy, where scientists would like us to be.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Tam, at the White House, the Trump camp, they don't see this as taking
TAMARA KEITH: They don't see it as taking a political risk.
The message that they have -- and they're pushing it hard, and I think it works absolutely
fine with their base. And I think we keep getting back to, it's all about the base this
election, at least the way the president is handling this.
But their response is, well, if there can be protests in the streets about racial justice,
then we can hold a First Amendment event in states that say that we shouldn't be having
a large event. And they are just doing it repeatedly and repeatedly.
Tonight was supposed to be a -- it was billed as a town hall panel discussion kind of thing,
and it's a rally. So, the White House -- this is the campaign. The campaign is putting on
rallies. And they are doing them indoors. They had been saying they were only doing
Well, this swing through Nevada and Arizona proves that they're not afraid to do it indoors
either. And part of that is that there may not be a direct line that can be drawn from
one particular event to someone getting coronavirus. And so they're just sort of taking a hands-off
JUDY WOODRUFF: And in just a couple of seconds, Amy, I heard one of the folks attending the
Trump-Nevada rally outside telling a reporter, this COVID is a hoax.
There's still that belief out there.
AMY WALTER: There is.
And there's a lot going on, especially on the Internet and social media, that is really
keeping Americans also in very different places about the reality of this very, very serious
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we're seeing -- we're certainly seeing a lot of it this week.
Tamara Keith, Amy Walter, we thank you both. Politics Monday.
AMY WALTER: You're welcome.
JUDY WOODRUFF: When Jasson Howell Sr. received a mandatory 10-year federal prison sentence
for heroin distribution, he shared that punishment with his family.
Two of his four children went to live with his parents, Kim and Dale Howell. The couple
has worked tirelessly to raise their grandchildren, while staying connected to their son.
Brief But Spectacular's Steve Goldbloom visited them in Portage, Wisconsin, in late 2019.
DALE HOWELL, Grandfather: My son was always adventurous. Jasson was a hard worker. He
got with a group of guys that were, for recreation, snorting pain pills on the weekends. Pretty
soon, heroin was cheaper, and that became his drug of choice.
It was constantly not enough money to pay for rent anymore, not enough money to keep
the water on. It was hard enough to see it being our son and his wife, but the children
were the hardest of all.
Some of the people that he was with went into shooting up heroin. Jasson picked it up for
a group of people. One of the kids shot up their girlfriend. She O.D.ed, see didn't die,
but she did O.D. And he served -- he got sentenced to a mandatory federal prison sentence of
When Jasson did get incarcerated, our oldest grandson was left alone oftentimes to take
care of his younger siblings, which was probably - - probably the hardest time of my life. Their
mother had overdosed and was being taken to the hospital.
KIMBERLY HOWELL, Grandmother: We were planning on getting all four the children. And when
the courts decided to split them up between grandparents, that was a really hard situation.
MARCUS HOWELL, 16 Years Old: When I learned my dad was going away, it was hard for all
of us. The most challenging part, I'd say, was just learning how long he was going to
KIMBERLY HOWELL: We see Jasson about three times a year. It's about an eight-and-a-half-hour
DALE HOWELL: It's a horrible thing to experience. And it wouldn't be so bad if it was just Kim
and I. But, usually, we have got four little ones' hands and taking them in as well. And
they shouldn't have to experience that either.
MARCUS HOWELL: The hardest part about seeing her dad is just knowing he can't come home
with us that day.
JASSON HOWELL JR., 13 Years Old: The best part about seeing my dad is remembering, like,
all the good times that we have and that there's a lot more good times to come.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: The most difficult thing is not being able to take my son home when
we go and visit. He's my firstborn, and he's always been my buddy.
DALE HOWELL: He's taken different classes in there. He's taken parenting classes.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: I have seen a huge change in him.
DALE HOWELL: He is learning through this rehab program in there to open up, to have to be
accountable. He's had to reach out and say things to his children that he probably wouldn't
have on his own, make apologies.
MARCUS HOWELL: My grandparents, they have raised us for a while, and I feel they have
taken over the role as parents, at least for now.
DALE HOWELL: I used to feel like, oh, we got our grandkids. Don't feel that way anymore.
We get to live with them.
They have taught us so much. That addiction that has affected them, I still see it, and
I wonder what they could have been or what they would have been or maybe what to only
get to be because of what they have gone through.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: Whenever the phone rings, I look to see if it says restricted on it,
because then I know it's him.
COMPUTER VOICE: This call is from.
JASSON HOWELL SR., Inmate: Jasson Howell.
COMPUTER VOICE: An inmate at a federal prison.
JASSON HOWELL SR.: Hello?
KIMBERLY HOWELL: Hi, buddy.
JASSON HOWELL SR.: Glad I made the call, because I tried -- I tried making it.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: I know you did, honey. I know you did. So how did work go?
JASSON HOWELL SR.: Work was OK. We had a little holiday meal today, so it was a little better
JASSON HOWELL JR.: Hello?
JASSON HOWELL SR.: What's up buddy?
JASSON HOWELL JR.: Nothing much.
I'm looking forward to spending time with my dad and just, like, messing around and
KIMBERLY HOWELL: OK, here's Marcus.
The most exciting thing is, when my son gets out, he will be able to see his oldest, Marcus,
JASSON HOWELL SR.: It is snowing out there at all, or no?
MARCUS HOWELL: It was this morning. It's slowed down for a little bit.
I just want to be able to do things with him and see him and not have any restrictions
KIMBERLY HOWELL: We have shared the sentence with our son. It's been a long journey.
DALE HOWELL: The joy that comes to our hearts knowing he's going to get out, it's also a
mixed bag, because that drug is tough one.
You hear about people relapsing all the time. We hope that he will have this licked forever,
but also, in the back of our mind, Kim and I both still kind of worry, do we have it?
Do we get to stop worrying now? Are things going to be OK now? Is he telling the truth
And I guess time will tell.
My name is Dale Howell.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: My name is Kimberly Howell.
DALE HOWELL: And this has been our Brief But Spectacular take...
KIMBERLY HOWELL: ... on our family.
JASSON HOWELL SR.: Well, I hope you guys have a good day, buddy. I just wanted to make sure
I can call and touch base with you guys. I love you a lot.
MARCUS HOWELL: I love you, too.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: We love you, too, buddy. Have a great day, OK?
COMPUTER VOICE: This call is from a federal prison.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: Have a...
JASSON HOWELL SR.: All right, I'll talk to you later.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: OK, honey. Bye-bye.
JASSON HOWELL SR.: OK. Bye.
KIMBERLY HOWELL: Bye.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What a story.
And we have an update on this piece. Dozens of inmates and staff members at the federal
correctional institution in Milan, Michigan, where Jasson Howell is serving time, have
been infected with COVID-19.
There have been at least five deaths. Howell is expected to be released this November,
after completing a drug abuse program. However, due to the virus, he can no longer take the
Finally tonight, we want to offer something joyful in these difficult times and look at
a band which has been bridging racial and cultural gaps.
We turn to Ranky Tanky, which has reached number one on top chart. It's won a Grammy
Award earlier this year for best regional roots album, unprecedented honors for Gullah
Jeffrey Brown went to the Low Country of South Carolina to take a listen and look, part of
our American Creators series and ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.
This piece was done before the shutdown due to COVID.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ranky Tanky, it loosely means get funky. And you can see and feel why it's
the right name for a band celebrating and reinventing a music of joy
and pain, rhythms brought by the enslaved from West Africa, spirituals of the Christian
church, themes that resonate today.
It includes songs many know, though you have likely never hear kumbaya quite like this,
an impromptu performance for us by vocalist Quiana Parler and trumpet player Charlton
WOMAN: And the Grammy goes to "Good Time," Ranky Tanky.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JEFFREY BROWN: Fresh off winning a Grammy for the album "Good Time," a first for Gullah
CHARLTON SINGLETON, Ranky Tanky: It meant a lot to me with this community, just because
of the magnitude of the whole Gullah thing.
JEFFREY BROWN: You felt you were representing something?
CHARLTON SINGLETON: Yes.
It's an honor to be here to stand on the shoulders of our Gullah ancestry.
That's representative of how I was raised, to be a musician, from listening and watching
and imitating all of my aunts and uncles and grandparents.
Thank you so much.
And to have it all kind of culminate with a Grammy, wow. Yes.
QUIANA PARLER, Ranky Tanky: Growing up in church, we emulate the elders as well. It
was like a homecoming for me.
JEFFREY BROWN: The ensemble is based in Charleston and specializes in jazz-influenced arrangements
of traditional Gullah, sometimes called Gullah Geechee, which originated among descendants
of enslaved Africans in Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
The four male members of Ranky Tanky have played music together since meeting at the
College of Charleston in the 1990s. But they'd all gone off to do their own things, until
two decades on, guitarist and vocalist Clay Ross proposed reuniting around Gullah. They
brought in Quiana Parler in 2017.
CLAY ROSS, Ranky Tanky: I'm a disciple of this music. This music moves me.
You know, this music has called to me. It's inspired me. And it's been a part of my life
for over two decades. There's no one out there doing a contemporary expression of our South
Carolina roots music, and specifically Gullah music.
JEFFREY BROWN: There's a strong sense of mission with this band, as we saw when percussionist
Quentin Baxter, bassist Kevin Hamilton and Clay Ross offered a lesson in history and
music to students at the Charleston Seventh Day Adventist School.
It wasn't a hard sell, as these fifth to eighth graders quickly took to the clapping, singing
QUENTIN BAXTER, Ranky Tanky: The thing about it is, the music and the message of the culture
itself deserves as big of a stage as it can get.
KEVIN HAMILTON, Ranky Tanky: I like to think of it as hopefully being part of the evolution
of the culture. So, there is a preservation there, but also I think there's also the -- hopefully
sharing it with the world and also adding to it.
JEFFREY BROWN: So, they were singing of the pains they were going through, right, the
PASTOR KAY COLLETON, Manna Life Center: But also songs of praise.
JEFFREY BROWN: The members of Ranky Tanky drew inspiration from places like Pastor Kay
Colleton's Manna Life Center, a church on John's Island, one of the many rural islands
off South Carolina where Gullah culture took root.
Built in 1902 and now on the National Register of Historic Places, it was known as a praise
house, where different denominations would gather, and was home to the Moving Star Hall
PASTOR KAY COLLETON: A lot of times, when young people hear the songs of the elders,
they think, oh, that's old stuff. No, that's good stuff. That is music that gives us a
foundation. It helps us move forward in a more progressive state. And so we don't want
to forget that. We don't to lose that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Gullah's popularity today springs from a more difficult past; 91-year-old Abraham
"Bill" Jenkins grew up on John's Island.
ABRAHAM "BILL" JENKINS, Gullah Historian: Everybody looked down on the Gullah then.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?
ABRAHAM "BILL" JENKINS: Even the people of Charleston, they weren't speak much better
than we do. But they thought, oh, that's those country boys.
JEFFREY BROWN: That's how you were treated, sort of second-class citizens?
ABRAHAM "BILL" JENKINS: Mostly fifth-class citizens.
JEFFREY BROWN: Fifth-class citizens, yes.
But then the music was a relief from that life?
ABRAHAM "BILL" JENKINS: Oh, people glad to get to church. Somebody leads, and the other
one responds, lead and respond.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ranky Tanky band members want to play it forward for current and future
generations. They're also part of larger Gullah cultural moment.
We met Charlton Singleton and Quiana Parler in the Neema Fine Art Gallery, which features
Gullah artists such as Dana Coleman, a childhood friend of Charlton's.
CHARLTON SINGLETON: To see his work and how it has gone out all over the world is just
another feather in the cap of the homeys from the neighborhood.
WOMAN: And nothing says Low Country cuisine like Gullah fried shrimp.
JEFFREY BROWN: TV food shows like "Delicious Miss Brown" reach larger audiences, even as
traditional sweetgrass baskets and other crafts are sold on local streets here.
In the meantime, the band is now performing at large venues.
CHARLTON SINGLETON: It was in this very room that we recorded our Grammy Award-winning
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JEFFREY BROWN: And they are still playing for local friends and family, as on this night
at the Truphonic Recording Studio. They closed, appropriately, with the song embracing this
good time for Ranky Tanky and Gullah music.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Charleston.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Something joyful, for sure. We sure needed that.
And that's the "NewsHour" for tonight. I'm Judy Woodruff.
Join us online and again here tomorrow evening.
For all of us at the "PBS NewsHour," thank you, please stay safe, and we'll see you soon.
More Episodes (238)
September 21, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episodeSeptember 21, 2020
September 20, 2020 - PBS NewsHour Weekend full episodeSeptember 20, 2020
September 19, 2020 - PBS NewsHour Weekend full episodeSeptember 19, 2020
September 18, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episodeSeptember 18, 2020
September 17, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episodeSeptember 17, 2020
September 16, 2020 - PBS NewsHour full episodeSeptember 16, 2020