NPR Reporters On The Stories That Stuck In 2012

Weekend Edition Saturday guest host Linda Wertheimer talks with NPR's John Burnett, Robert Smith and Alix Spiegel about the most interesting stories they reported this year.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. We work on so many stories throughout the year around here. We research them, we report them, we broadcast them, and then we move on to the next story. But every so often a story really sticks with us well after the reporting is over. As we approach the new year, we've asked three of our correspondents to join us to talk about the pieces they produced in 2012 that they will not soon forget. With me in the studio is our science correspondent Alix Spiegel. Hi, Alix.

ALIX SPIEGEL, BYLINE: Hi.

WERTHEIMER: Now, from our New York bureau, correspondent Robert Smith of the Planet Money team. Hi, Robert.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: Hey, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: And in Austin is NPR's national correspondent John Burnett, who is back in Texas because he's just finished a temporary assignment in East Africa. Welcome, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: And happy to be here. Hi, Linda.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Alix, you're sitting right next to me so I'm going to start with you. Your beat is psychology and mental health. What story did you bring us?

SPIEGEL: So, I brought probably the most popular story I did this year. It's about differences between the way that the West and the East think about the process of intellectual struggle. And it kind of starts with this guy named Jim Stigler, who is a graduate student. He looks at, you know, how different cultures teach. And he goes to visit Japan. And he goes and he sits in the back of this math class. And here's a clip of him telling what he sees there.

JIM STIGLER: The teacher was trying to teach the class how to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper. And one kid was just totally having trouble with it - his cube looked all cock-eyed. So, the teacher said to him, you know, why don't you go put yours on the board. Right there, I thought: that's interesting. He took the one who can't do it and told him to go do it on the board.

SPIEGEL: And what's interesting about that is that, you know, in America what - the person who goes to the front of the room is the brightest student who can do it the best. In Japan, they asked the student who was having the most trouble doing it to go to the front of the board. And this really gets Jim Stigler thinking about, like, how differently we approach this experience of struggling academically. In America, if a kid - if your child or you are struggling with something, it's evidence of weakness. But in Japan, they think of intellectual struggle as kind of a natural part of the process. And, really, when you are struggling with something intellectually, it's an opportunity to show that, you know, you have kind of the emotional strength to go through it.

SMITH: Alix, this is Robert here. This reminds me - I learned how to play the board game Go that they play in Japan and in China. And one of the things they tell you right at the beginning is to lose your first 50 games quickly; that the whole notion of learning this game is to start by losing a lot. And it reminds me a little bit of this, this theory that it's going to happen, so you need to embrace that. That is the important part.

WERTHEIMER: So, Robert. You are the money guy, and you're helping to explain to us how the global economy affects our lives. What piece do you find most memorable this year?

SMITH: Well, the most important story of the year in the economy was definitely the European debt crisis. But it was also the most boring story of the year because it involved these things - believe me, even I turn off the radio when I hear sovereign debt and bond yield spreads. And so last summer, Zoe Chace, one of the correspondents for Planet Money, and myself went to Europe to try and find interesting characters who are sort of living out parts of this European debt crisis. But our favorite guy we met along the River Maas in Maastricht, Netherlands. And he was trying to sell us drugs.

GANJABOY: Skirrup(ph). Ganja boys in the building. Skirrup, bang.

SPIEGEL: So, in the name of journalism, are you allowed to purchase drugs?

SMITH: We did not purchase drugs from Ganjaboy - and that's his official name as far as that goes. And he was playing out this weird little drama. Specifically, if you've ever been to the Netherlands, you might know that marijuana is tolerated there. There are coffee shops where you can smoke, pretty much legally, marijuana. But after the euro started and they opened up all these borders, people started to pour in to the Netherlands from the rest of Europe. And so this tiny town of Maastricht would be filled with tourists all coming for the marijuana. And Maastricht decided, listen, we have had enough. This whole European unity thing is ruining our town, so we're going to require people to have their IDs in order to buy marijuana; you have to be a citizen of the Netherlands. And that brought Ganjaboy into the picture. Because all of a sudden, this drug trade, which was legal in Maastrict, became quasi-illegal for foreigners. And what happens when you make something illegal? Ganjaboy shows up.

WERTHEIMER: Opportunity, yeah.

SMITH: Yeah. And who did he sell to? Here - we have another cut of tape here.

GANJABOY: I have Dutch people that buy, people from other countries, everyone - grandmas, yes, grandmas. Yes, they do that too.

SMITH: I notice your phones keeps ringing.

GANJABOY: Yes, that's the money. Skirrup, bang.

WERTHEIMER: What is this noise he makes? This skirrup thing?

SMITH: You know, it's funny because we came back with the tape and I worried about him. Like, wait a minute, what if that's a bad word in the Netherlands? I tried to Google it. I don't know how many Rs there are in skirrup, but nobody complained, so I assume that that is his signature sound. He's sort of a one-man European union of pot.

WERTHEIMER: A little teeny-weeny brokerage of sorts, I guess.

SMITH: Exactly. He's...

BURNETT: So how did you expense that, Robert?

WERTHEIMER: John?

SMITH: Once again, I did not...

BURNETT: How did you expense that?

SPIEGEL: I know, really, exactly.

SMITH: Once again, officially, I did not buy marijuana from Ganjaboy.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you, Robert. John, you were off your usual Southwestern beat for half a year and you were in Kenya. Everything must have been very new and interesting for you.

BURNETT: I just treasured the time spent in East Africa. And the piece I want to talk about - I went to southwest Uganda to a national park called Mgahinga Gorilla National Park. And I wanted to do a profile of the Batwa forest people, who are also called pygmies. So, in 1991, Uganda decides to create a national park to create a gorilla habitat for the mountain gorilla. So, they evict the Batwa forest people. And this is kind of a raw deal that hunter-gatherers have all over Central Africa, from Cameroon all the way to Uganda. They get evicted from their forest homelands. So, this happened to the Batwa forest people in Uganda. They got kicked out of the forest in '91 and they had been living like paupers, kind of on the fringes of this new national park, which is really not that popular. So, there's this interesting program that the Uganda wildlife authorities started. It's called the Batwa Trail. And for 80 bucks, a tourist gets to go with a group of these pygmies back into their forest home and sort of relive what life was like for them when they lived this almost prehistoric life in these enormous thick, thick bamboo forests where the light never penetrates. So, here we are, we're walking up the forest...

WERTHEIMER: Now, I just got to stop you. The idea of walking up the forest, I mean, I suppose many of our listeners don't know that you are 6 feet 7 inches tall. And these guys must have come to your knees.

BURNETT: Well, OK. They were small. I was - it was freakish. So, here we are. We emerge from the forest and our six guides see a mountain range that's called the Old Man's Teeth, 'cause that's what it looks like. And it's a sacred mountain. And this is not just contrived for tourists; this is how they react to being in their homelands, which one person compared to, like, visiting your wife again after you've been, you know, held away. And so this is the music they broke into when they saw this mountain range.

BATWA FOREST PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: So, forest people are kind of known for this ecstatic singing and dancing at the drop of a hat, 'cause they just - there's sort of this joyous response. And what I loved about this is it's basically a pentatonic blues that they're singing. And so I kind of heard the strains of the Mississippi fife and drum band there. These are people who are living a fairly miserable life. And so when they break into song like this, it's this catharsis. When they talk about the blues as being a release, whether it's Muddy Waters in Chicago or, you know, Son House in Mississippi. And then they did this for about 10 minutes there in this forest clearing. And it was just this moment in the middle of sort of ancient Africa that I'll treasure.

WERTHEIMER: Yeah.

SMITH: John, you've been known to play a harmonica yourself. Were you tempted to join in?

BURNETT: I have to tell you, Robert, that actually they were singing in D and I only had an A harp with me.

WERTHEIMER: Alix Spiegel, Robert Smith and John Burnett. Have a happy new year.

SPIEGEL: Thank you.

SMITH: You too.

BURNETT: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUES HARMONICA MUSIC)

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