Elections And Ethics Bill, The Delta Variant, Virtual Farming: News You Need To Start Your Day

Published June 21, 2021 at 3:25 PM EDT
Side-by-side photos showing a greenhouse (left) and a person in a yellow raincoat pushing an orange cart with white-flowered branches on it.
Ryan Kellman/NPR
Cleveland is fighting climate change in ways that also attack social and racial inequities.

Good morning ☕️

Thanks for joining us for today's Morning Edition live blog. This is a new space where we'll be sharing the most important stories each morning.

Here’s what we’re watching today:

  • A new analysis warns the Delta variant could hit unvaccinated areas of the U.S. hard.
  • The Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian spent nearly 18 months jailed in Iran. He’s got some sage wisdom to share on emerging from isolation.
  • Gamers are making a living … farming. We cannot get over this, check it out.
  • 🎧 On today’s Up First, our podcast of the top news to start your day, Democrats made passing an elections and ethics bill a priority, but it’s expected to fail in the Senate. So what happens now?

The Morning Edition live blog team

(Emily Alfin Johnson, Rachel Treisman, Arielle Retting, Nell Clark, Casey Noenickx and William Jones)

Before You Go

We Need To Talk About This Often Monotonous, Totally Captivating Farming Game

Posted June 22, 2021 at 10:13 AM EDT

That's all from us this morning. Before we leave you though, can we just talk about the buzz around this video game?

A visitor drives a tractor while playing Farming Simulator at the Gamescom gaming industry event in Cologne, Germany, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. Gamescom is Germany's largest congress revolving around digital games, and acts as an interface with other cultural and creative branches, as well as with the digital economy according to their media site. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A visitor playing Farming Simulator at Gamescon in 2018.

Aptly titled, Farming Simulator allows players to enjoy the thrill of plowing a soybean field, the excitement of bailing hay and the exhilaration of harvesting wheat.

And it's of course not the first video game to let players get a taste of a digitized agrarian life. Cult favorites Farmville, Stardew Valley and even the Sims City spin off SimFarm have been winning over loyal fans by planting (virtual) yams for decades.

But as St. Louis Public Radio's Jonathan Ahl found out, not only does Farming Simulator put you in the tractor's seat, it has also attracted a massive fan base of folks interested watching along.

So much so that players are able to make real money tending their virtual farms by streaming on Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. Ahl spoke to some of the streamers making a living off of virtual agriculture.


Who Will Lead New York City? A Guide To The Mayoral Primary

Posted June 22, 2021 at 10:06 AM EDT
Four voting booths, two of which are occupied, line up across an auditorium floor.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
This year's Primary Election Day marks the first time that New York City is using ranked-choice voting.

It's primary day in New York City, and all eyes are on the tight mayoral race.

That's especially true of the diverse Democratic field, where eight candidates are vying to lead the country's largest city. Issues like policing, public safety and pandemic recovery are also in the spotlight.

NPR's Bill Chappell has this helpful guide to who's running and what's at stake.

And for all those watching: Polls close at 9 p.m. ET, but it may be weeks before the results come in.

That's because New Yorkers are selecting their candidates through ranked-choice voting for the first time.

The method requires voters to rank up to five candidates in order of preference rather than choosing just one, and aims to encourage candidates to build broad coalitions.

Learn more about the system's logistics and significance here, courtesy of senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

Supreme Court

A Former College Athlete Turned Advocate Celebrates The Supreme Court's NCAA Ruling

Posted June 22, 2021 at 9:51 AM EDT
Three football players hug on field during a football game in a full stadium.
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
Ramogi Huma, pictured on the left, playing for the UCLA Bruins against the Texas Longhorns in 1997.

There's been a long debate over the fact that colleges make a lot of money off their sports teams, but the athletes don't see any of it.

The Supreme Court has weighed in on the matter. In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that the NCAA can't prevent student athletes from getting certain kinds of educational benefits. The ruling could be transformative for college athletics; you can learn more about that ruling.

That decision is being welcomed by Ramogi Huma. He played college football at UCLA and founded an advocacy group for student athletes called the National College Players Association.

He created that organization after he saw one of his teammates struggling.

He was broke and hungry because the NCAA's low cap on compensation wasn't enough for many players to have food. He was on a radio show talking about how difficult it was to get by and someone left groceries anonymously on his doorstep. And the NCAA punished him.
Ragomi Huma - President, National College Players Association

Huma has been pushing for protections for student athletes, and he says the ruling is a positive step.

On how he reacted when he first heard the decision:
"I'm just excited. It's a lot of validation for so many people who have fought for college athletes to have equal rights, which includes equal rights under antitrust law. Meaning the NCAA has no right to act like it's above the law and cap players' earnings."

On how he believes the system as it exists has impacted college athletes:
"There are a lot of athletes from low-income homes, predominantly Black from revenue sports in particular, that have been harmed for years because of this. They've been exploiting college athletes for generations and generations."

You can hear his interview with Rachel Martin here.


How One Immigrant Family Recovers After Being Separated Under Trump Policies

Posted June 22, 2021 at 9:36 AM EDT
A father and son stand close together facing away from the camera. 
Un padre e hijo están parados lado a lado, alejados de la cámara.
Jessica Pons for NPR
Néstor (left) and his father Melvin left their home in El Salvador in 2018. After arriving in the U.S. they were taken to separate facilities. Néstor (izquierda) y su papá Melvin emprendieron la partida de El Salvador, su país, en el 2018. Después de llegar a los Estados Unidos fueron separados a diferentes centros de retención.

Oprima aquí para leer y escuchar el reportaje en Español.

Néstor was 11 years old when he and his father, Melvin, fled gang violence in El Salvador and traveled by car, raft and foot over 1,000 miles to seek asylum in the U.S in 2018. But when they reached the border, Néstor was separated from his father under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy. Today, they’ve been reunited but are still working through the trauma that separation caused for them both.

Néstor and Melvin are one of about 5,500 immigrant families separated under the policy, and experts estimate more than 1,000 may still be separated from each other.

Click here to read and listen to their story in English or in Spanish.

Néstor tenía 11 años cuando él y su papá, Melvin, huyeron de la violencia en El Salvador. Viajaron más de 1,000 millas por auto, balsa y a pie para pedir asilo en los Estados Unidos en el 2018. Pero al llegar a la frontera estadounidense, Néstor fue separado de su papá bajo la política de cero tolerancia del Presidente Trump. Hoy están reunidos pero aún están enfrentando el trauma que la separación les causó a ambos.

Néstor y Melvin son unos de los aproximadamente 5,500 familias migrantes que fueron separadas bajo esta política, y los expertos estiman que más de 1,000 familias aún permanecen separadas.

Oprima aquí para leer y escuchar el reportaje sobre Néstor y Melvin en Inglés.


What Do Democrats Do After Their Top Legislative Priority Fails Today?

Posted June 22, 2021 at 9:24 AM EDT
Sen. Jon Tester seated in the wood-paneled Senate chamber, with the American and Senate flags on either side of him in the background.
Sarah Silbiger
Getty Images North America
Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, supports the For the People Act but expects it to fail without 10 Republican votes.

The U.S. Senate plans a vote this afternoon on a bill setting new federal standards for elections. The 50 Democrats will be joined by no Republicans, falling far short of the 60 votes needed to head off a filibuster.

Senator Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, has no doubt about the failure. He says that as a next step he is ready to end the filibuster, taking away Republicans’ power to block legislation when in the minority.

“Mitch McConnell is a fine man,” Tester told Morning Edition, but the Senate Republican leader “always has been opposed to anything we do with elections. Getting dark money out – he’s been opposed to it. Allowing people easier access to the polls – he’s been opposed to it.”

Tester describes the For the People Act as “common sense.” It includes a wide variety of measures—such as setting a nationwide standard of at least 15 days of early voting, changing campaign finance rules and ending partisan redistricting.

NPR’s Susan Davis reports the legislation was crafted when Donald Trump was president and was seen as a response to the abuses of Trump’s time. It is so sweeping that if passed it would likely trigger court challenges.

Since then, Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election has hardened Democrats’ position. So have Republican state legislatures’ continued efforts to reshape real-world voting rules based on the ex-president’s election fantasies.

Tester dismissed the idea of crafting a more limited bill that might receive Republican support, saying it might be possible to break this legislation into smaller pieces but that voting on — and filibustering — each of those measures would take more time.

Republicans remain adamantly opposed to the current measure. McConnell has said that federal standards for ballot access would, “rig the rules of American elections permanently, permanently, in Democrats’ favor.”

But supporters of ending the filibuster may not have the votes to do that, either. Democrats could change the rules with a simple majority, but West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and other Democratic senators are opposed.

Listen to our conversation to learn more about Tester's support for the bill and stance on the filibuster.

And click here to learn more about what's in the bill and what to watch for next.


On Her Way Out The Door, She Rattled The Halls Of Power In The Philippines

Posted June 22, 2021 at 9:17 AM EDT
Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda waits for former vice-president in the transitional government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to enter the court room of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to stand trial on charges including corruptly influencing witnesses by giving them money and instructions to provide false testimony, and presenting false evidence, at The Hague, the Netherlands, on September 29, 2015. Former vice-president in the transitional government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo stands trial with Aime Kilolo Musamba, Jean-Jacques Mangenda Kabongo, Fidele Babala Wandu and Narcisse Arido. AFP PHOTO / POOL / PETER DEJONG (Photo by PETER DEJONG / POOL / AFP) (Photo by PETER DEJONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images
Former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda, seen here in 2015. Bensouda ended her tenure at the court last week.

In the Philippines, human rights workers worried that their shot at bringing to justice the perpetrators of the country’s notoriously bloody drug war was about to pass.

Then, on Monday, June 14, the last day of her nine-year term, International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda delivered a stunning parting shot that rocked Manila. There was, she declared, a “reasonable basis” to believe that crimes against humanity — notably, murder — had been committed in the war on drugs in the Philippines that had left thousands of Filipinos, many of them poor, dead.

It was the culmination of a three-year examination, and Bensouda urged the ICC to authorize the new chief prosecutor to open an official investigation into the case. If granted, indictments could follow.

Human rights attorney Neri Colmenares told NPR, “This is not yet justice, but this is a major step toward that.”

🎧 However, there are serious hurdles to clear.

A defiant President Duterte vows to never cooperate with ICC. In a profanity-laced broadcast last night he disparaged the ICC as “monkeys,” and insisted that harsh measures were appropriate against drug suspects. “If you do not move against them, it will destroy our country,” he said.

While human rights defenders wish to see Duterte in the dock, the over-burdened ICC has to be persuaded to first open an investigation at a time when alleged war crimes cases are piling up from Afghanistan to Nigeria to the Gaza Strip.

20210622 David Bosco.mp4

The very nature of the crimes is complex. And American University international law professor Diane Orentlicher says powerful leaders under scrutiny have been able to “interfere with witnesses, obstruct justice, [and] intimidate people who would be key sources for the prosecutor.”

As journalists who exposed the drug war are jailed, and human rights advocates speaking out are threatened, Orentlicher says the Duterte government should not be underestimated.

“This is going to be a very tough process,” she says, “not for the faint of heart at all.”


Joni Mitchell's Indisputable Classic 'Blue' Turns 50

Posted June 22, 2021 at 9:05 AM EDT
Joni Mitchell at the 2020 NAMM Show in Anaheim, California.
Jesse Grant/Getty Images for NAMM
Getty Images North America
Joni Mitchell at the 2020 NAMM Show in Anaheim, Calif. Today marks 50 years since she released her album Blue.

Today marks 50 years since one of the great works of the 20th century came into the world: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, the Canadian singer’s fourth album and the rare work that bears the mark of an indisputable classic.

Few pieces of art — in any medium, really — are both definitive and also elusive enough to keep an audience pursuing them for half a century.

In honor of its milestone, NPR Music’s pop critic Ann Powers has written a long piece that asks devoted listeners to Blue to celebrate the album by setting aside the old idea that it’s best understood as the “apex of Joni Mitchell’s confessional period” — the standard of confessional songwriting itself, many have argued.

Instead, Ann digs into the musical choices Mitchell and her collaborators made — the “solid work,” as she puts it — “that made Mitchell able to communicate this idea she had about becoming transparent.”

Every time I listen, I feel like I'm there with Mitchell and her small occasional band as they make their choices and take their risks. Little things, turning struggle into flow: maybe the brush hitting Russ Kunkel's drum, or James Taylor idly strumming a chord progression he'd just laid down on the album he was making across the way.
Ann Powers, NPR Music’s pop critic

NPR Music is hosting a listening party for the entire album this afternoon at 2pm ET, where Ann will be joined by a notable fan of the album, singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile, who has spent plenty of time digging into Blue’s bright charms and dark corners.

NPR Newscast - International

Top U.S. Envoy To North Korea Travels To The Region, But Diplomacy Remains Uncertain

Posted June 22, 2021 at 8:49 AM EDT

North Korea appears to have poured cold water on U.S. hopes for a resumption of dialogue.

The top U.S. envoy for North Korea, Sung Kim, who concurrently serves as U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, is in South Korea for five days.

Last week, the North's leader Kim Jong Un told his country to be ready for either dialogue or confrontation with the United States.

The Biden administration says it hopes for dialogue, and has offered to hold talks without any preconditions.

But state media published a statement from Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, saying the United States is misreading Pyongyang's message, and is bound to be disappointed.

She did not explicitly rule out a resumption of talks, nor did she explain just how Pyongyang's message should be interpreted.


The Extremely Contagious Delta Variant Could Soon Be The Dominant Strain

Posted June 22, 2021 at 8:25 AM EDT
A man walks into a pop-up vaccination site in Hollandale, Mississippi. So far, less than 30 percent of people in Mississippi have been fully vaccinated.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
A man walks into a pop-up vaccination site in Mississippi. So far, less than 30% of people in that state have been fully vaccinated.

"Super contagious" is the phrase experts are using to describe the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The World Health Organization’s chief scientist says it’s well on its way to becoming the dominant variant globally. And cases in the U.S. are growing.

Here’s what we know about the variant and the impact it could continue to have:

What’s the data showing? A new analysis from a testing company called Helix that’s helping the CDC track variants found that the Delta variant now accounts for at least 14% of infections nationally. That’s compared to 16% of infections caused by the Gamma variant. But the Delta strain appears to be the most aggressive variant yet and looks like it’s quickly outcompeting all the other variants.

What are the implications? It appears the Delta variant is so contagious that it could become the dominant virus in the U.S. within three or four weeks.

Do vaccines protect you from this variant? Research shows the vaccines do work well against the variant. But partially vaccinated people are still vulnerable, and people who are not vaccinated are unprotected.

Could we be looking at another surge? That could well happen. A new set of projections that are just out from a group called the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub is helping the CDC figure out where the pandemic might be going. It concluded that a highly contagious variant like Delta could trigger yet another wave as soon as July.

You can read more about how public health experts view the Delta variant.

The New Normal

Jason Rezaian Was Jailed In Iran For 544 Days. Here's His Advice For Reentering Society

Posted June 22, 2021 at 8:02 AM EDT
A portrait of Jason Rezaian from the chest up, against the backdrop of a gray ceiling and white lights at the Washington Post office. He is wearing glasses and a gray sweater over a blue-checkered shirt.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP via Getty Images
Jason Rezaian, then the Tehran correspondent for The Washington Post, spent 544 days in an Iranian prison between 2014 and 2016.

Jason Rezaian is not an advice columnist, but he does have a special credential to counsel those of us emerging from isolation as the pandemic eases.

The Washington Post journalist was arrested in Iran and spent nearly 18 months in captivity — including in solitary confinement — before his release in 2016.

When the pandemic started, he wrote a column with advice for enduring the less extreme, but still stressful adjustments to living in lockdown. And he’s now offering tips for navigating the way out. Hear the full interview.

Jason Rezaian

Empathize, but don't overshare

Rezaian says even his dramatic story of imprisonment tended to bore people.
While he admits it’s a bit harsh, he says nobody is all that interested in your tales of isolation, since we all have our own. But it is a good time to listen to those who need to talk, who have lost loved ones or suffered in other ways.

Respect boundaries

Many people are still getting comfortable with physical contact after months without it, and not everyone is equally ready to get up close and personal with others. It may not be a bad idea to keep your hands in your pockets for a few months, Rezaian says.

Embrace the change

Be aware that we’ve all changed, whether consciously or not. Not everything will return to the way it was before, he adds, so have patience with yourself and others. For all we know, some of these changes may actually be improvements.


Senate Republicans Are Poised To Block A Sweeping Elections And Ethics Bill. Now What?

Posted June 22, 2021 at 7:42 AM EDT

The U.S. Senate will vote today on new election rules, in the form of a Democratic-led proposal called the For the People Act.

The bill, which passed the House in March, would make sweeping changes to the voting process and many aspects of campaign finance and ethics laws.

Democrats consider it such a high priority that they made it Senate Bill 1, the first of the year. Republican lawmakers are calling it a power play, even though many red states are enacting new voting requirements of their own.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat who supports the bill, acknowledges that voting is generally a state issue but says it’s important to set federal standards for things like increasing access to the polls and transparency in campaign finance.

“If we’re going to have a democracy that works, we need to have the voices at the polls from everybody, not just a select few,” he said. Listen to his interview with Steve Inskeep.

The bill is all but destined to fall short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. So what happens next? More on that here, and key takeaways below.

What would this bill do? A lot. Some examples: expand voter registration options as well as mail-in and early voting, require more disclosure for political advertisements and donations, set new ethics requirements for Supreme Court justices, require presidential candidates to disclose up to 10 years of their tax returns, and charge independent commissions with congressional redistricting.

Why are Republicans opposed? They say the bill would exert more federal control over elections; indeed, some of its provisions would likely be challenged in court. They also point to the record turnout of the 2020 election, and the fact that the ultimate vote count was not in doubt, to argue that barriers to voting don't need such a sweeping remedy.

Is compromise possible? Unlikely. Democrats see voting rights as a fundamental issue and are reluctant to budge on most major provisions of the bill. This legislation was first drafted by Democrats without any Republican input during the Trump era, in large part to address what Democrats saw as abuses of power. Republicans believe Democrats are using the legislation to give their party an edge in future elections and argue many of the provisions are constitutionally questionable.

What does this mean for the filibuster? The White House said this week that Democrats may revisit filibuster rules if the vote fails, though the party still lacks unanimous support for eliminating it.

If you want to learn more, our congressional correspondent Susan Davis offers details here.


To Address Climate Change, Cleveland Is Combating Racial And Economic Injustice

Posted June 22, 2021 at 7:35 AM EDT
SeMia Bray, one of the coordinators of Black Environmental Leaders in Cleveland, says she is encouraged by the city's climate goals.
Ryan Kellman
SeMia Bray, one of the coordinators of Black Environmental Leaders in Cleveland, says she is encouraged by the city's climate goals.

A century ago, streets in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood were lined with four- or five-story brick apartment buildings and stately Victorians. Today, many of those buildings have disappeared, with some replaced by empty lots covered with grass. Others are in disrepair.

In 2018, the city revisited its climate action plan, looking for ways to address climate change and the needs of neighborhoods like Hough at the same time. It brought a new focus on public transit, trees and housing renovation.

“I feel like that’s our lowest hanging fruit and also the way to have the largest impact in disinvested communities, communities that are struggling,” says Tony Reames, director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan.

The federal fight against climate change may be taking a striking new turn under the Biden administration. The White House is calling climate action a form of environmental justice, part of a campaign to address economic and racial inequity.

Here's what that means for cities like Cleveland going forward.


NFL Player Carl Nassib Comes Out In Instagram Video

Posted June 22, 2021 at 7:28 AM EDT

Monday, 28-year-old Carl Nassib came out to the world:

Nassib, a defensive lineman for the Las Vegas Raiders, says what's comfortable now came after agonizing over this moment for the past 15 years. He's the first active NFL player to announce he's gay.

In his video Monday, Nassib talked about the importance of representation and visibility and said he's donating $100,000 to The Trevor Project, a group for LGBTQ youth.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league is proud of Nassib for courageously sharing his truth.

Nassib is a five-year veteran who many fans may remember from the TV show "Hard Knocks," when he played for the Cleveland Browns.