Questioning Mara Liasson (5 x 8 – 11/8/13)


Back when Juan Williams was fired by NPR for giving his opinion — a very tainted opinion in the eyes of many — on FoxNews — a very un-NPR-like operation — many people wondered how it is Mara Liasson escaped NPR’s concern.

“Her affiliation with the Tea Party channel and willingness to just go along with whatever is said by others on the fake news shows she appears on has ruined whatever small remaining shreds of credibility she had left,” one listener wrote to NPR’s ombudsman, Edward Schumacher-Matos.

“If Ms. Liasson wishes to be respected,” another listener — Joan Jones, of Madison, Wis., — wrote, “I suggest that she refrain from using Republican or ‘Tea Party’ talking points in her reporting. In her reporting on the Affordable Care Act in particular, you are obligated to go beyond the talking points to get to the truth of an issue.”

Does the affiliation ruin Liasson’s credibility as NPR’s national political reporter?

“No,” says Schumacher-Matos in his month-long analysis today:

Some liberal listeners of NPR may not want to hear what Jones above calls “Tea Party ‘talking points.'” Listeners are right to be concerned about the uncritical reporting of misleading claims and half truths made by any political group. But Liasson is a political reporter whose job precisely is to report and analyze political maneuverings. Others at NPR are the experts on issues such as Syria and health care, which they dissect in other stories. This is not to say that political stories should not add context on issues, and many of Liasson’s stories did.

Liasson in all her reports was a remarkably cold-eyed analyst. Going back to the Syria coverage, for example, she reported on Weekend Edition:

President Obama has had a tough year. He failed to pass gun legislation; immigration reform has stalled in the House. He barely escaped what would have been a humiliating rejection by Congress on his plan to strike Syria. Just this week, his own Democrats forced Larry Summers – the president’s first choice to head the Federal Reserve – to withdraw.

This might seem negative about Obama, but it is a fair and accurate summary of events. She is hardly kinder to Republicans. She came back in the same story to note “Republican chaos” over the government shutdown and threatened debt default.

More media: Sunday night’s 60 Minutes story on the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi is imploding. The story, critical of the Obama administration, was based on the account of Dylan Davies, a security officer hired to help protect the mission. It turns out, according to what he’d earlier told the FBI, he wasn’t even there. This morning, the reporter, Lara Logan, appeared on CBS to apologize. “We were wrong,” she said.


There may not be a more beloved charity in America than the Red Cross. In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, you’ll recall, the charity was criticized for holding back millions of dollars in aid. Executives said they didn’t want to pour money after bad and wanted it to effect long-term change.

Now comes a new allegation, closer to home. Al-Jazeera America reports the Red Cross changed eligibility requirements for aid to Hurricane Sandy victims, after they were told they qualified. People donated more than $300 million to the Red Cross in response to appeals.

In an internal document obtained by the Disaster Accountability Project, the Red Cross laid out talking points for caseworkers to use on families who had been disqualified for aid after the drastic changes to the eligibility criteria. One question reads, “Why was a review of the Move-In Assistance Program enacted on May 6th?” According to the document, the answer stated: “We are committed to being good stewards of donated dollars and regularly evaluate our work. We conducted a review as part of that due diligence and to ensure that open cases are following program guidelines.”

The Red Cross worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said that, in general, he believed that the humanitarian organization attempts to be a good steward of donors’ dollars.

“However, the decision that was implemented on May 6 didn’t seem to have anything to do with that,” the worker told America Tonight. “There were clients who had received a commitment from the Red Cross for money to assist them in recovering from the storm, but then were deemed ineligible. That’s not assisting clients. That’s not directing the donor dollar where it should be. That’s lying to the victims of the storm and survivors of the storm.”

The Red Cross appeared contrite about the situation “If clients believe they were promised assistance by a Red Cross caseworker and our documentation supports this, we will honor their request, even if they do not fully meet program criteria,” a spokesperson said.

Related: Red Cross Gives $500,000 Grant To Help NYC Seniors Still Recovering From Sandy (CBS)


Are out-of-state kids taking ice time from Minnesota students? WCCO reports that young people have a better shot at being seen by colleges and pros by playing here, so their parents are sending them here to go to school play hockey. We’re the Texas of hockey.

In many cases, the parents don’t come with the student, paying a fee to the school district of between $7,000 to $12,000. That might be good for the future hockey star and the school district, but what about the kid who lives here who’d like to play for his local school team?

A Concordia University student is looking for a legislator to sponsor a bill in next year’s session that will investigate the situation and uncover what’s really happening in prep sports here.


Some life-or-death decisions might seem a little clearer if we declare someone in a persistent vegetative state, unable to communicate and not quite aware. But what if we only think they’re not “there,” but they really are?

The Verge’s Katie Drummond looks at recent studies, especially one last week, that could challenge the bioethics of the recent past.  The study found similar patterns of brain activity of a person in a “vegetative state” to eight perfectly healthy study participants. “So what this tells us is that there is more to the inner worlds of at least some of these individuals than we ever thought,” the researcher says.

What could this mean?

But as researchers continue to decipher those inner worlds, their work is eliciting a bevy of questions about how patients in vegetative states should be cared for, what additional rights we might owe them, and whether or not information gleaned from neuroimaging will help or harm family members.

“This is really riling the ethics community,” says Arthur Caplan, head of the division of bioethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. “There used to be a presumption that a [VS] patient didn’t have consciousness, and that was a clear diagnosis. Now we’ve got doubts.”

Of course, investigators still have plenty of work ahead before they’re able to firmly validate these findings. Few patients have been tested, and many of those tests used EEG — a signal vulnerable to misinterpretation. “It’s a really tough field, and it can be difficult to interpret results when you have confusing signals and a patient who isn’t showing behavioral changes,” says Andrew Goldfine, MD, a neurologist at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital.

Earlier this year, Goldfine and his colleagues actually published a critique of one landmark vegetative state study — noting that its results were essentially meaningless. “I have no doubt that some patients who appear vegetative are actually fully conscious,” Goldfine says. “But these techniques need to be good, and they need to be reliable, before we move ahead in using them clinically.”

It’s an article — which you can find here — in which the attached comments (most of them, anyway) are worth reading.

(h/t: Scott Olstad)

More science: The best time to drink coffee (Popular Science)


Tony Desnick, an exec at NiceRide Minnesota, experimented with the idea of going carless in a place like Bemidji. It didn’t work. He couldn’t get back to the Twin Cities without a car. It takes nine hours to get from Bemidji to Saint Paul. Nine hours!

He considers this in his post on, and came up with a solution:

Then I started to think about the trains of my youth. Traveling around the state in comfort and style and departing and arriving in the wonder that is St. Paul Union Depot.

Why couldn’t we do that now? Amtrack (sic) and the freight carriers don’t play well together on the same stretch of tracks so I thought of a better solution. Put a passenger coach or two at the front – or back of existing freight trains. These trains could stop at dozens of towns along the way within Minnesota (or beyond).

We could use technology to determine if someone needed to embark or disembark at a specific station and use historical data to create schedules accurate to within 30 minutes. The train from Seattle to Chicago doesn’t run nearly that close to timetables. Now I could take the train from Bemidji to St. Paul in fewer than 9 hours and enjoy the space to stretch.

Feeling pretty smug about my inventiveness I looked around for historical examples. It seems most trains in the 19th century were mixed – freight and passenger. In the early part of the 20th century those mixed trains were relegated to branch lines here and there.

As the automobile with improving roads and cheap (as it remains today) fuel began to dominate travel over short distances, the passenger rail companies went into oblivion to be replaced later by Amtrack (sic), hardly a model of efficiency or comfort, unless you live in the Northeast corridor.

Bonus I: If only it were this simple. This week’s viral veteran video is courtesy of a ministry that changes the appearance of down-and-out veterans.

Bonus II: In Duluth, volunteers help out a disabled Vietnam vet and make his home more accessible.

Bonus III: In Canada, it’s illegal to wear someone else’s military medals. A widow is going to defy it. (CBC)

Bonus IV: New Moorhead council member’s inspiration was his mom, who died a day before election (Forum).

Bonus V: Can your summer season do this?

Should the Redskins change their name?


Daily Circuit (9 a.m.-12 p.m.): First hour: Friday Roundtable panelists discuss the future of the Twin Cities.

Second hour: Minnesota Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke on the future of the zoo and the role that zoos around the world are going to play as animal habitat continues to shrink and more species become threatened.

Third hour: NPR political reporter Ari Shapiro in conversation with Tom Weber about what it’s like to work the White House beat.

MPR News Presents (12. p.m.-1 p.m.): Broadcast of the Westminster Town Hall Forum: Warren Buffett, author of “40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World.”

Science Friday (1 p.m.-2 p.m.): High school kids are doing genetic engineering. A discussion about biosecurity in the age of do-it-yourself biology.

All Things Considered (3 p.m.-6:30 p.m.) – St. Paul Public Schools is taking a different approach to special education this year. Instead of isolating special education students in a classroom of their own for much of the day, they’re now being put into mainstream classrooms as much as possible. District leaders say will give special education students, the majority of whom are African American boys, equal access to educational opportunities.

But some special education and general education teachers say the change has happened too quickly. They fear special education students aren’t getting the one on one help they need, and say more teachers in general education classrooms are being injured by students with behavioral problems. MPR’s Tim Post will have the story.

Mark Steil of MPR reports lower corn prices are helping the ethanol industry recover from a rough year. Many plants have lost money in that time span. But although the dropping corn costs help, a new problem is on the horizon: potential changes in the amount of ethanol that gasoline blenders are required to add to their fuel.

The band Aparato could have easily been yet another Mexican-American group playing Latin alternative music. Instead, they blend the traditional sound of Mexican music with punk and rock. The result is a surprising mix, almost celestial in nature. NPR will report on the group that’s breaking music’s borders.