The Media Frenzy Surrounding Oscar Pistorius
JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. More than a week has passed since Olympic athlete and South African sports hero Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. He faces charges of premeditated murder. On Friday he was granted bail and left jail.
Pistorius' sponsorships have been placed on hold. His future remains uncertain. Sports writers, tabloids and the court of public opinion are all taking a closer look at what we do and don't know about Oscar Pistorius. So many eyes are fixated on this story, is it more heat than light, or is there something to learn from how different media outlets are covering it?
If you're following the Pistorius case, what are the best pieces you've heard or read about? Tell us what you learned. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley tells us what to expect in the upcoming sequestration battle. But first media coverage of the Pistorius case around the world. Edward Schumacher-Matos is an NPR ombudsman and blogs about questions of ethics on NPR's blog. He joins us here in Studio 3A. Welcome.
EDWARD SCHUMACHER-MATOS, BYLINE: Hello, Jennifer, how are you?
LUDDEN: Good. So tell us: How has - we'll start with ourselves. How's NPR been covering this story?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, you know, there have been 14 segments on this story, not counting the half-hour and the hourly reports...
LUDDEN: So in one week that's two a day. We got it covered.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Two a day, and we've gotten lots of complaints coming in about that, into my office and really across NPR, that it's too much. There's a wonderful quote here, like Ed Nicholas(ph) from Fort Lauderdale says: I'm over it. I don't care if he shot her. It doesn't matter. I never want to hear about it again.
Or Rodney Knight(ph), you know, writing in from Santa Monica says: The most important event in the world today is Oscar Pistorius, not sequestration, not Syria, immigration, Mali, et cetera? I have to admit that it's not really an ombudsman issue. You know, I'm really concerned about...
LUDDEN: They're not questioning the fairness of the coverage.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: No, not at all.
LUDDEN: They're just saying enough already.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Yes, enough already. And I have to admit that I kind of agree with them. And I say this as a listener because it's not an ombudsman matter. I really think...
LUDDEN: So we can talk about it for another hour about how we've over-covered it.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: We can talk about that. Though that said, there is a lot to talk about here. I mean, I think there are some serious things that surround this issue.
LUDDEN: Well, the question becomes why are we and the world covering it so much?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I think everybody's just fascinated with this case, of a - you know, one, we become fascinated with sports heroes and what's happened to them or any kind of a celebrity, right. But secondly, this is a very peculiar sort of sports hero because here was one who was disabled, you know, who sort of overcame all these odds to become an Olympic athlete and performed very well, you know, kind of almost a bionic man. This is an unusual guy, right.
LUDDEN: Blade Runner, as he was called.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Right, right, Blade Runner. And then, you know, he kills his girlfriend, who happens to be a beautiful model.
LUDDEN: On Valentine's Day, no less.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: On Valentine's Day no less. So, you know, clearly it's got the, you know, the elements of an interesting human interest story without a doubt.
LUDDEN: So, I mean, a fallen hero case, is - we've had so many of these. Is that - we build him up. Was there something we're discovering that we missed in the interim between the Olympics and now?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I wouldn't want to, you know, prejudice Oscar Pistorius. So I don't know if we're discovering anything new about him. I do know that we're discovering a lot of new things about disabled people. We're discovering a lot of new things about violence against women in South Africa.
We're discovering a lot of new things about the way the global media handles issues as opposed to national media.
LUDDEN: For example?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I mean, I think the curious thing, one of the curious things about this story is imagine, we're so in focus on the story of something happening in South Africa. It just goes to show how we're becoming a smaller world, that this may be the first case of a sports figure who's been tried in the global media.
So as much as the South African legal system or the South African courts, you know, might have their own kind of controls on media coverage and so forth, it makes no difference. He's - as you pointed out, you know, Nike and Oakley are either cutting him off, or they're reconsidering their sponsorships of him because of something that happened in South Africa.
They know that about here, and everybody here knows about it. No one - local news is global news now.
LUDDEN: Right. Let's bring a caller into the conversation. Robin(ph) is in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION. Hi Robin.
ROBIN: Hey, how are you doing? I was calling because I heard on Marketplace the other day, one of the journalists was saying that O.J. - the O.J. case had turned cases like this into somewhat of a cottage industry for marketers. And they were realizing that people were so fixated on these cases that they were able to sell, I guess, better advertising with more thorough evaluations or examinations of the information.
So what I'm curious about is: Where the heck is the equity? I mean, why are we not hearing more about the story, not because I have any sort of bloodlust or anything, I'm certainly not personally interested in it, but I don't see the same level of scrutiny going on about who this man really is. You know, what do his exes say? Does he have a history of violence? And also, his teammates.
Everybody's just talking about - they seem to just be interviewing the folks who he has good reviews from, and I'm sure there's somebody else out here. So I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
LUDDEN: Thanks Robin. Edward, someone who wants more coverage.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Sounds to me like you want to really try him in the press and learn all his dirty secrets. I mean, there has been a lot of that type of coverage. The responsible press is concerned about how much you go into that kind of thing because you find information that may, you know, implicate him in ways that are unfair.
So you have to be very careful when you do things like does he have a history of violence or not. Does that automatically mean he is indeed violent or that he did commit this heinous act? We don't know. It's one that you have to careful - now the South African press really went to town on this case in the original - in the first days afterwards with all kinds of reports, many of them very lurid, about him.
Then he shows up in court, and he's crying. And he's crying, and suddenly the South African press turns, and there's a great sympathy for Pistorius himself. So - go ahead.
LUDDEN: Let's bring in someone from the - sort of the South African press; a South African. Sean Jacobs is an assistant professor of international affairs at The New School, and he's founder of the blog Africa is a Country. And he's in our New York bureau. Welcome to you.
SEAN JACOBS: Hi, good morning.
LUDDEN: So what can you add here about the - how South Africa press, South Africa's press has been covering the Oscar Pistorius story?
JACOBS: I think it's - in a number of ways, I think just in terms of the content, I think Edward kind of alluded to that already, which is at first I think there was sort of a bewilderment and shock that it was this kind of hero that was held in high esteem. Within South Africa, we can debate, you know, the extent of that hero worship.
That was followed by sort of let's, you know, look into his dark past. That then becomes sympathy while he's in court when he starts sobbing. Then it becomes a story about police incompetence. And now it's mired by the fact that his brother, I think, is also - has a case against him of capital homicide dating back to 2008.
I think the second thing is this question of what - the free-for-all within the South African media, and Edward again alluded to that, the sort of lurid, you know, reporting about anything goes, stuff that can't be confirmed or later has to be retracted.
The - while that's happening, though, the South African court system works in a very different way. So, you know, all this chatter is out there, but it may not have an impact on what's being done in court.
LUDDEN: Why is that?
JACOBS: And then finally, I think, is the role of social media in the way that it's being covered in South Africa. Like it broke - a newspaper broke it, then while it wasn't even confirmed, and, you know, it just broke, it went on Twitter. People started debating, commenting on it. And the story just ran. And so in a way the South African media had to respond to it.
LUDDEN: You said that all the information and sensationalism out there may not actually affect the court in ways we in America would think. Tell me about the different way the law works there.
JACOBS: So the difference is that firstly, there is a rule in South Africa that until somebody pleads in court, then these matters are sub judice, which means that, you know, it's subject to the courts, so you can't really talk about it. The difference is, of course, now, is that there's Twitter; that changes this. The second thing is we don't have jury trials in South Africa. It's a judge, who is assisted often by two experienced people that are noted as assessors, and they decide over the guilt or otherwise of the accused.
So whatever is entered in court, that has an effect on it. So, all the chatter around the court doesn't really affect the case.
LUDDEN: That's interesting. Let's take another phone call here. Dane(ph) is in Boulder, Colorado. Welcome, Dane.
DANE: Hi, thanks for having me.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
DANE: Sure, I just wanted to comment about the culture, the media culture in South Africa. I've been fortunate enough to travel there quite a few times. And one thing I noticed last time I was there is that you do hear, often, cases in the news there about home robberies, about people having to defend themselves and defend their property. So this is something that was very much in the news, I believe, even before the Pistorius case happened there.
So the fact that the South African media would run with this case so - you know, on such a grand scale, it's not surprising in one bit.
LUDDEN: All right, Dane, thank you so much. Sean Jacobs, is this reported more as a security story in South Africa than just a - you know, in the...?
JACOBS: I mean, Dane is right, there is a high - there are high levels of crime affecting, you know, people's personal space. So in the beginning, when it happened, the first sort of reporting was that somebody had broken into Oscar Pistorius' house, and, you know, therefore he shot his girlfriend. And then secondly his family, through the spokesperson, I think it was his uncle, also said this, that he would be justified in shooting, you know, whoever was the intruder. So he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder. The problem with that kind of story is that he lives in a heavily fortified, gated community, and I think I saw some statistics for crime in that area. It's probably less than 10 percent of all the crime happening in the surrounding area, where Oscar Pistorius lives, happens inside the place where he lives.
So when we talk about crime in South Africa - and again, these are - people have perceptions, you know, their personal safety, they fear about it, and there is somewhat also hysteria about it. But the real victims of crime in South Africa are often black South Africans, poor South Africans mostly.
Unfortunately it's easy to, in a sort of heightened way of talking about crime, to make - to use a race-crime panic to explain away or justify domestic violence. I think what's interesting about this case is even the - a minister in the South African government I saw yesterday saying this not a general kind of violence, this is some kind of special violence.
But I think - and Edward I think alluded again to this at the beginning, which is there's something about South African and you know, domestic violence or violence against women, a lot of public figures in South Africa, whether - there's a government minister currently engaged in...
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LUDDEN: You know what? We have to cut you off right there, but we are going to get on that very topic in just a moment. We're talking about the Oscar Pistorius case, specifically how the media is covering it. What's the most informative piece you've heard? 800-989-8255, or email@example.com. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. Today we're talking about the Oscar Pistorius case, the story of the so-called Blade Runner, his model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp now dead and the events that unfolded in the early hours of Valentine's Day.
It's provided fodder for countless news cycles, but what's also interesting is how the media is covering it around the world and for different audiences. If you're following the case, what's the best piece you've read or heard about? Tell us about it and why you liked it. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can share your story on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're joined by NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos; and Sean Jacobs, assistant professor of international affairs at The New School. We're also going to get the view of a sports reporter. First let's get a caller on the line, Marjorie(ph) in Charlottesville. Hi, welcome to the show.
MARJORIE: Hi thanks, yes. You all had touched on what I was calling about. Ray Suarez interviewed Charlayne Hunter-Gault this week, I think it was, and Charlayne, who's one of my heroes, talked about the rampant and widespread domestic violence and violence against women in the country - not to pick on South Africa, but that seems to be the issue that's become the most important and prominent to me with this story.
And Charlayne said - also made the point that some of the women from the ANC were coming down to the courthouse and holding up signs saying, you know, we will watch this, and we will get justice for our sister. And these are black women who are in the ANC coming out to pay attention to this.
But also, Charlayne said that there are countless numbers of women who are poor and non-white, poor and/or non-white, whose violence and deaths never get reported or covered.
LUDDEN: Right, thank you so - that's a great point. Thank you so much for the call, Marjorie. Edward?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Marjorie, you raise a very good point, and Sean was alluding to it, as well. The South African press, as a matter of fact, has been reporting a lot about this issue in recent days. I mean, there seems to be a tremendous amount of reflection about violence against women going on in South Africa these days and for good reason.
I have a report here from the South African Medical Research Council that says 40 percent of men in South Africa admitted to hitting their partner, their wife or their girlfriend. And a quarter, a quarter of men have raped a woman sometime in their lives.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Now, you know, I'm citing this thing, I've not had a chance to do any independent reporting separate from that, but this is a very reputable group in South Africa, the Medical Research Council. That's really stunning. And some of the stories that I've been seeing coming out, and we all know the case that happened in India, but these kinds of things in South Africa, they're - I've seen story after story of similar sort of incidences going on.
LUDDEN: A new twist there that - yeah, I don't think a lot of that is making it to the American press.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: No, it's not making it to the international press like it's made it to the South African press.
LUDDEN: Let's get another perspective here. Malcolm Moran is director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. He joins us from member station WFIU at Indiana University. Welcome to you.
MALCOLM MORAN: Thank you, good afternoon.
LUDDEN: So how has this been covered in the sports media?
MORAN: Well, one of the complications of this kind of global story is that in the United States in the last 10-plus years, there are fewer and fewer reporters in sports departments that are devoted to so-called Olympic sports and cover the Olympics. And there are fewer general sports columnists. I mean, that genre is disappearing.
And so if this had happened to a high-profile global figure from an earlier Olympiad, somebody like a George Vecsey from the New York Times, for instance, would be in a perfect position to analyze this case and connect it to similar tragedies involving other high-profile athletes. It's much more difficult to do that now. And it's more difficult to find reporters that have had some personal connection in their coverage with somebody who became a global figure in London.
LUDDEN: So are you saying we're probably getting less coverage than we would have? I mean, are they just sticking - did they kind of cover it as the sports hero and drop it there, or they...
MORAN: Well not less coverage in terms of volume but in terms of the kind of understanding that a question raised earlier, as far as we know what this person achieved, and we know the global inspiration that came from it, but clearly, regardless of how the criminal justice system plays out, we didn't know that much about who he really is. And that becomes more and more of a theme in this era with high-profile sports figures.
LUDDEN: All right, let's get another caller. Jim(ph) is in Reno, Carson City, Nevada. Hi Jim.
JIM: Yeah hi, thanks. I just wanted to make the comment that, you know, there - perhaps the reason we're getting such a flood of news coverage on this from South Africa is because of the gun control issue here in our country. You know, I would have no problem protecting my home, either. You know, if somebody comes into my home, there's a home invasion, I'd have no problem shooting somebody. But I would never fire through a closed door without knowing what's behind there regardless of, you know, what I thought, whether it's a burglar or whatever. But it is my understanding that he yelled out to whomever it was behind the closed door and got no response.
Now, you know, if it's his girlfriend in there, first of all I don't understand that line of defense, but be that as it may, you know, he'll have his day in court, and I certainly don't want to try this in the - you know, in public opinion.
LUDDEN: All right, well, it's a good topic you bring up, though. We'll - let's put it to - thanks, Jim for the call. Sean Jacobs, is the South African press focusing on the gun question?
JACOBS: I mean, gun control isn't really this - it doesn't have the same - you know, the debate is not the same. South Africa has really strict rules about the ownership of firearms. It's not as - you know, there's - the way the people here talk about it, I think it's the First or Second Amendment. It's a very different debate. So that hasn't come up that much.
It is true, though, that you have a generation particularly of white men, maybe some who are older than Oscar, who had served in the army and who are, you know, very familiar with firearms and know how to use that. So - but that's usually discussed in a kind of political context. It very rarely gets discussed in how people talk about domestic violence and the use of, you know, firearms to kill like a relative.
In fact, police statistics show that eight out of 10 murders in South Africa are people are shot by somebody they know.
LUDDEN: Edward, what about in the U.S. coverage? We are having this debate here. Is it reflected in this coverage, do you think?
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: I don't think we've seen much. It could be. It's a good question. It's a good point. That was a good point, that the gun debate here has something to do with this though I don't think that much. I do think that - I do find it interesting that the South African press is much more concerned about the race issue than what we see here.
And, you know, you see many comments in the South African press that if Oscar Pistorius was black, for example, he never would have gotten bail.
LUDDEN: OK, what about the race issue there in South Africa, Sean Jacobs? We heard someone saying that black and white women are joining together to say, you know, this is violence against women, and we're going to stand together.
JACOBS: I mean, that's true that there is a sense that domestic violence does not make any exception for somebody's race or class. I mean, as I was trying to say before the break, a South African government minister is currently being accused by his estranged wife of physically abusing her, and there - you know, almost every week there's a story of some or other celebrity, woman usually accusing her male partner of, you know, repeatedly attacking her.
At the same time, it is true that somebody - a white woman has a better, you know, chance of getting justice, if you want, or attention in courts or revisti(ph) income. I mean, a lot of the focus initially was on she's blonde, focused on, you know, her body, her hair. And this is - it's quite interesting.
At the same time, a week before she was murdered, there was a murder of a very - it was a big story in South Africa at least, of a woman called Anene Booysen, a black working-class woman, who was murdered by her boyfriend. She was raped, gang-raped and then murdered. And that case has not got the same kind of attention or urgency in public debate in South Africa as this case has had.
But on the other hand, I think it's quite exciting, or it's a good sign that you have a mostly - an organization of black women, you know, making connections and saying this is a problem that affects all kinds of women in South Africa.
LUDDEN: Similar to things we hear in the U.S. sometimes when things like this happen. Edward, I want to ask about yet another area of coverage, the disability press.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: You know, that part has fascinated me. And I've learned a lot myself, frankly. It's been an eye-opener for me reading some of the blogs and the advocacy press from the disability side. Oscar Pistorius - and I didn't realize this - is a hero to non-disabled people, not to disabled people.
And the criticisms that I've been reading in all these blogs is that non-disabled people see him as someone who overcame adversity to become like normal. And, you know, the disabled press and the advocates say that's not what we want to be. We don't want to be like normal. We are who we are, and we want our rights. And they can be very strong about that.
LUDDEN: And there was that contention. At the Paralympics he got into a bit of a tuffle there over his competitor, who said his blades were - his artificial legs were longer, and it wasn't fair.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Right, that's right.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: So for us there's been this bionic man kind of a thing and this debate that you're just raising, which is fascinating. But there's a total different angle, take on this from the disabled community, and it kind of opened my eyes, and I think it should open a lot of other people's eyes if more of us know about it.
LUDDEN: Malcolm Moran, in the sports press, have you seen that reflected?
MORAN: Somewhat. But I think what we're going to continue to see is that since the digital side of things does not present any space limitations, and so you have demands for more angles to be studied. You've got global press and local press that sometimes operate under different codes of ethics, and yet in a global atmosphere, they're all competing against one another.
So I think we need to remember that this is in the very early stages of the criminal justice part of this, and we're going to see a lot of things developing, both locally in South Africa and globally.
LUDDEN: Let's get a caller on the line. Steven is in Windham, Connecticut. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
STEVEN: Hi. I read a Reuters piece, and it was a riff on the comment from the chief of police whenever it said that, you know, where are these reporters getting these stories from? Saying - basically saying a lot of this is not matching up to his evidence.
LUDDEN: Gee, we never hear that here, do we?
LUDDEN: All right. Thank you so much. Sean Jacobs, what about the quality of the reporting there, and are officials disputing it?
JACOBS: I mean, one of the stories that's emerged is that we get a sense of the quality of South African police work. People have often complained about, you know, shoddy police work that lets criminals off. So what this reporting has done - and, I mean, maybe it's - you know, we can blame reporters easily. But it turns out that the police had done really bad work, so they replaced the investigating officer.
I just want to make one other quick point that I don't want to pass, which is about it's not that all reporters were immune to, if you want, Oscar Pistorius' dark side. There was a piece about a year ago in The New York Times Magazine by one of their writers, Michael Sokolove, that did write a little bit about Oscar Pistorius' fascination with guns, his temper, et cetera.
So it's - it may - maybe because of the way we talk and write about sports, you know, the sort of like tropes, different kinds of heroes, you know, overcoming things, all-American hero, et cetera. So there wasn't much about that, but there are - there was some reporters that at least tried to write about or report about the most sort of unsavory aspects, if you want, of his character.
LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And Mike is in Maryville, Missouri. Hi, there, Mike.
MIKE: Hi. How are you doing?
MIKE: You know, with the media, if the media would grab stories that they can - that can be solved, it'd make a big difference, you know? We talk about homosexuals and talk about the debt, but we can't solve those problems. We really can't. Now talk about something that can be solved. Like I said, there's family services. Family services goes into a home and takes the children out the home, put them in foster and then put them up for adoption.
LUDDEN: So you're saying what's the point of covering all this? The victim is dead. That's that, and there's nothing to be learned here? Is that your point?
MIKE: Not saying nothing to be learned. Pick the part that you can work with, that the people can solve that problem. You know, this guy shot his wife, or his girlfriend. What are we going to do about it? That should be the first question. What are we going to do about it? Ain't nothing we can do about it. OK, give it a story, put it out there and leave it alone. Go find something we can do something about.
LUDDEN: All right. Thank you for the phone call, Mike. Edward.
SCHUMACHER-MATOS: Well, I think Mike is parroting a point of view of a lot of our listeners, actually, and he said it from the gut. You know, this doesn't - we really can't do much about this, so why do we need to know so much more? It's a good point.
LUDDEN: We have a comment from Jim, who emails: Here's my interest in Oscar Pistorius' story. I just turned my radio off.
LUDDEN: Sean Jacobs, are there complaints in South Africa that this is being over-covered?
JACOBS: I saw a blog post earlier today by a journalist who covers, you know, sort of monitors the media that said that there may be fatigue with Pistorius covers, but then - coverage. But then when I went on Twitter afterwards, I think there's very much still an appetite for all kinds of, you know, whether gossip or what the police are going to do next. So there's definitely still an interest.
In fact, he's trying to continue practicing while he's on bail. So I think there's fatigue by some people, but other people are interested. I just want to make a quick point. I don't know how homosexuality is a problem, but anyway.
LUDDEN: Let's squeeze a very quick last call in here, Desmond in Cleveland, Ohio. We've got just a couple minutes left. If you can go right ahead, briefly. Thank you.
DESMOND: No, very quickly. Interesting perspective. I have a - I'm from South Africa. I was a former police officer, detective, internal affairs. So I'm quite familiar with the court systems down there. But I'm going to comment on the media and the press. As far as the press - and I live in Canada, but I'm in the U.S. right now on business.
And what we see right now in the world is very simple. I think it was mentioned right earlier in the call. You know, it's got all the makings of a great story in terms of a press story, you know, boyfriend, a hero, sporting hero overcomes adversity, kills girlfriend with a gun in - on Valentine's Day. So that's the reason for the interest worldwide.
Now, in South Africa, very quickly, historically, South African people are a very, very proud people, and what's happened is they really identify with their sports heroes. So they love sports heroes until - and I think this goes for most of the world, as well. So what's happened with Oscar, he's had a fall from grace. And what's happening now is not only in the press, but also from Facebook and social media - to which I'm very connected to friends in South Africa - is that they want to disconnect themselves from Oscar Pistorius.
I'm getting asked every single day: Desmond, what's going on? You know, what's going on in South Africa? Is there nobody there that's not accused of murder? And my answer was, well, is there no one in U.S. that hasn't shot up a school lately? I mean, it's one of those things that hit the press, and everyone's just trying to disassociate themselves with Oscar. And what I've found is, I would say, nine of the 10 people (technical difficulties) him from a South African perspective (unintelligible)...
LUDDEN: All right. We're going to have to drop it there. I'm so sorry, but there will be much more coverage to come. So they'll have more time to complain about this. Edward Schumacher-Matos is ombudsman for NPR. He was here in Studio 3A. Sean Jacobs, assistant professor of international affairs at the New School joined us, and also Malcolm Moran, director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. Thanks, everyone. Coming up next, a preview of the sequester. Is it really going to happen? NPR's Scott Horsley joins us. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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