Conversation with the NPR Ombudsman Listener representative Jeffrey Dvorkin discusses recent NPR coverage.
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Conversation with the NPR Ombudsman

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Conversation with the NPR Ombudsman

Conversation with the NPR Ombudsman

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast earlier this month and left death, ruin and despair behind. Over the past two and a half weeks, most of us have been riveted by stories of heroism and tragedy, incompetence and bungling. News media from around the country and around the world focused mostly on New Orleans and often on disturbing images of poverty, neglect and violence. Issues of race and class usually lie beneath the surface. At some times of crisis, they bubble over onto the front page. Hurricane Katrina was a disaster story and a response to disaster story, but it was also one of those moments where, through the media, many Americans glimpsed the realities of the poor and the powerless in our country.

Later in the program, police in London find videos of the planning for last July's attacks, and we'll remember Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal.

From time to time on TALK OF THE NATION, we invite NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin to join us to take your questions about NPR's coverage. He'll be with us in just a couple of minutes to address your questions and comments about whatever you think NPR News did well or badly.

But we don't mean to restrict you to Katrina coverage, though that's been the main story these past few weeks, so much so that we've invited media ethicist Keith Woods to join us to expand the conversation to other news outlets as well.

Was Katrina overcovered or undercovered? Were reports too squeamish or too graphic? Did the media cover New Orleans at the expense of southern Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; looting and survival, refugees and evacuees, class and race? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

And joining us now is Keith Woods, dean of the faculty at The Poynter Institute, and he joins us from their studios in St. Petersburg, Florida, far enough north, I think, to be out of the way of Hurricane Rita.

Mr. KEITH WOODS (Dean, The Poynter Institute): Thank goodness, yes.

CONAN: Thanks very much for joining us today.

Mr. WOODS: I'm glad to be here.

CONAN: The media sort of patted itself on the back for predicting disaster in New Orleans. All the stories in The Times-Picayune, other outlets, including National Public Radio, saying if there was a Category 4 or higher event, the city could be flooded. Later on it was interesting, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post did a story where he said The New York Times and The Washington Post had gone through their archives and found out that they had done almost no mentions of poverty or racial situations in New Orleans in the 10 years before this hurricane.

Mr. WOODS: Well, I don't know that that would be different from coverage of poverty anywhere else in America, in any other city, so if we are surprised to learn that there were poor people in New Orleans, then we'll be pretty shocked to go to Detroit or Chicago or New York or Philadelphia or many other cities in the country.

CONAN: So you see this as a reflection of ignoring this issue overall and not specifically New Orleans which is a--it's fair to say a much poorer city than most.

Mr. WOODS: Well, I think it may be a reflection of that. It wouldn't be the first thing that I thought about when I looked at the coverage of Katrina, but, yeah, the fact of the matter is that when you are spending as much time as we spend on Michael Jackson or Aruba or many of the other stories that have some measure of importance but certainly not to the proportion of coverage, then you are probably not covering things like poverty in the city of New Orleans.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. When you looked--you said this--what was your first reaction when you saw the Katrina coverage? And obviously there was a lot of it and it changed over time.

Mr. WOODS: Right. Well, let me talk first about the upside of it. One of the things that the national media did, and particularly one of the things that the broadcast media did was provide Americans with an opportunity to understand the breadth and depth of this disaster and to give them a chance in many ways, large and small, to help and to help the people who needed it most immediately, including helping our sluggish federal government to figure out how to get up and get down there and give help. So I think it's--we're always quick to jump on the things that went wrong. Let's make sure that we acknowledge that even today much of the coverage that's being done involve journalists putting down the note pads, in a sense, and understanding that they had a secondary role to serve in this coverage.


Mr. WOODS: But when you talk, Neal, about the coverage of race and class. I think we, as journalists, jumped pretty quickly and I think even prematurely, to talking about those two issues when we saw those images out of New Orleans because the pictures of black people in some form of despair fit some stereotypes that we might have had about those folks. You know, a lot of the people who were in the Superdome, a lot of the people who were on their rooftops weren't poor. They might have been unwise, but they did not reveal just the depth of poverty that existed in that city and there's a lot of conflating of those issues in the coverage.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. There were also, I guess, a couple of now notorious incidents where photos were captioned of people wading through the water and carrying something; black people described as looters, white people described as finding food.

Mr. WOODS: Right. The truth of those images, though, was that the photojournalist who took the picture of the white people interviewed them, learned how they'd come to the food that they were carrying and tried to reflect accurately what happened. The photojournalist who took the picture of the black man coming out of the store with the garbage bag full of things from the store saw looting. The images I think were leapt upon because they, in fact--they fit what we expected in some ways of the media in its coverage of race and to a certain extent hit at a time when we were pretty angry as a nation about what was going on and that was just another thing to be angry about. But I think that they are a poor example of whether or not we have a racial problem in this city--or in this country.

CONAN: Let's bring Jeffrey Dvorkin into the conversation now. He's NPR's ombudsman. He's with us here in Studio 3A. And let me remind you, he is here to take on anything in NPR's recent coverage, not just Katrina issues, though that's certainly been the lion's share of the news coverage lately.

Jeffrey, always nice to have you on the program.

JEFFREY DVORKIN (NPR Ombudsman): Nice to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And I was wondering, listening to what Keith Woods was saying, would you agree that that's--is that what listeners are writing you about?

DVORKIN: Well, they've been writing about a couple of things. They've been writing about how, frankly, impressed they've been with NPR and then they've been writing about what else they'd like to hear.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

DVORKIN: And they've been telling me that they think that while they've been moved by the power of the reporting, they've been shocked by the stories of how desperate people have been by it and they want to know if NPR has done enough to cover issues of race and culture, and one gentleman wrote me the other day, Mr. John Duffy, and took me to task for a column I wrote where I agreed with listeners who thought NPR's coverage of the hurricane was among the best ever heard on NPR. And Mr. Duffy instructed me to hold the bouquets for NPR because he felt, in much the same way as the ombudsman at The New York Times, that NPR just hasn't done enough on the story.

And I looked back in the archives, which our archives go back to '91, I think, and...

CONAN: Obviously, our archives go back further. That's the archives you can actually access...

DVORKIN: Online, right.

CONAN: Digitally, yeah.

DVORKIN: Inside--when you're inside NPR.

CONAN: Right.

DVORKIN: And there are a lot of stories on race. There are a lot of stories about life in minority communities in the United States. But I think that--and NPR has done quite a few stories on African-American culture and life and music and art, but not a lot of stories on the politics of the African-American community or the economics of poverty as much as it might have. So I think that that's a good point.

CONAN: Let's get listeners in on this conversation. It's about you, join us: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is And let's begin with Fred. Fred's calling us from Southern California.

FRED (Caller): Yes. Hi, good afternoon. And thank you for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

FRED: Two comments. First of all, I think that the coverage essentially became all New Orleans all the time. It was coverage through a microscope or a telescope. Second thing, the coverage really ignored the fact that the devastation extended over an area the size of Great Britain.

CONAN: Keith, would you agree that there was--the focus on New Orleans at the expense of other areas that were affected?

Mr. WOODS: Well, depending upon who you were watching, I would say that that was so, and depending upon what you're reading. Of course, if you're reading The Times-Picayune, online, it's going to be about New Orleans. But they also had folks in Mississippi getting information out as soon as they could get it out. But, yes, and there are good reasons to spend a lot of time on New Orleans. Proportions, I think, were askew. There's a good reason to spend a lot of time on one of America's great cities that has had this catastrophic event that will change this country, not just the city. But, yeah, we should have known a little bit more about what happened to De Lisle, Mississippi, or Ocean Springs or Pascagoula. We should have known more about what happened to Buras, Louisiana, and Port Sulphur and Pointe A La Hache and Phoenix(ph) and these communities that your listeners probably have never heard of.

FRED: Actually, the Louisiana offshore oil pipeline is, in fact, far more vital than most people realize and I think the media should have focused on some of the secondary knock-on effects of the hurricane. I also think that people don't realize the sheer surface area. You have an area the size of Great Britain with no communications, no roads, no power and that--I mean, that's huge. And I think that was something that the media did not accurately emphasize when they castigated the federal government for a response that, in effect, was faster than the response to Hurricane Andrew. And thank you again for taking my call.

CONAN: OK, Fred.

Mr. WOODS: That would be a dubious honor to be faster than Andrew.

CONAN: And let me also point out that, isn't it--and, Jeffrey, weigh in on this, as well--isn't it the nature of media that there are essentially snapshots? I mean, it looks like that television picture covers a wide area, but it really doesn't. These are snapshots. You don't get that sense of the vastness of this story.

DVORKIN: Right. And I think in newspapers, they have the ability to write what's called the lead-all, which is the opening few paragraphs that kinds of sum--that will try and sum up the overall impact of a story. Broadcasting doesn't have a lead-all--although it could, I suppose, if one were designed--and so as a result, I think the coverage has been through a magnifying glass, not through a telescope or a microscope. And I think that the power of broadcast journalism in this has been pretty extraordinary as stories about the effects of the hurricane are illustrated in various ways. And I think that there's a good point to be made on what is the overall story and how do we tell that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We're going to ask you both to stay with us. Our guests are Keith Woods, the dean of the faculty at The Poynter Institute--he's with us from their studios in St. Petersburg, Florida--and Jeffrey Dvorkin, NPR's ombudsman, who's with us here in Studio 3A. If you'd like to join the conversation, we're focusing primarily on Katrina coverage, but other issues involving NPR's coverage, as well. You're welcome to join us. Our telephone number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is Back after the break.

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking today with NPR's ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, about NPR's recent coverage in general: the Roberts' hearings, Hurricane Katrina's aftermath along the Gulf Coast, the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, anything else that made it to the air and inspired your questions. We need you to call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is Also with us is media ethicist Keith Woods of The Poynter Institute, joining us from their offices in St. Petersburg, Florida.

And, Jeffrey, here's an e-mail I think goes to you. This from Keith--another Keith--in San Rafael, California: `I don't believe NPR questioned the actions or lack of actions by state and local officials in this disaster. They simply followed other media players who focused on the problems of the federal response. No one really asked why so many people were bottled up in the Astrodome'--I think he meant Superdome--`waiting for evacuation or why 700 local buses in New Orleans sat idle. Where were the state police and National Guard? You and other media projected the opinion of the federal government was responsible for evacuating these people and for the disaster, in general. In fact, it was clearly a local failure.'

DVORKIN: Well, a lot of people have written about that, especially after the head of FEMA--or now the ex-head of FEMA, Michael Brown, was dismissed. And many listeners have been concerned that NPR specifically has concentrated over much on the effects of the federal government and their lack of effectiveness in handling the hurricane and its aftermath and have ignored state and local problems. I think that's a fair issue, although I think NPR has done, more recently, a better job in pointing out where the gaps in the rescue operation were held.

But it's clearly to a large extent a federal story. And issues about the federal response, or lack thereof, are something that have concerned many people and certainly in Washington; that's definitely a factor.

CONAN: Keith Woods, from your perspective, I wonder, has this been caught up in the partisan battles that we're quite familiar with here all the time in Washington? Has this become a media bias issue?

Mr. WOODS: Well, it easily can become that because a lot of the people who complain that too much is being laid at the foot of FEMA are responding to the blame that's being laid at the foot of the White House, and very much want to push it back to the Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor in Louisiana and in New Orleans. And, you know, I'm sure that some of that's going on, but you can't ignore the fact in the end that the federal government wasn't ready. And while the city and the state and region should have had a better plan in place before the storm than they did, there really isn't much to excuse the federal government's response; not just to the state of Louisiana and not just to the city of New Orleans, but to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and to the southeastern part of the state of Louisiana that got hit even before the city of New Orleans did.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Jeffrey.

DVORKIN: I think that's another factor here, which is that Hurricane Katrina has allowed people to criticize a government that has not been--has been pretty impervious to criticisms up to now. And so my sense is is that there's kind of a conveyor belt of grievances that's running now in which Hurricane Katrina is the most recent element of criticism. But a lot of other things are coming into play as well now in the minds of the public, I think, not the least of which is the war in Iraq and the economy and people are starting to feel that they can unburden themselves about a whole bunch of things that since 9/11 perhaps they haven't been talking about.

Mr. WOODS: I do want to say, though, it's important right now for the media to recognize the cycle of these kinds of stories, where the partisan politics debate springs up in the middle of it and the media gets distracted either covering the debate itself or being immersed in it itself.

DVORKIN: Or being intimidated by it.

Mr. WOODS: Or being intimidated by it and going after the stories that they are being accused of not covering. The fact of the matter is that an immense natural disaster has befallen a part of this country, that people are displaced, that even though the folks are out of the Superdome, they are still scattered around this country, that that is going to have a profound effect on this nation, not just on Texas or Louisiana or Mississippi. And that that story needs to get the kind of focus that we need to have before we go back to Aruba.

DVORKIN: And my worry is, is that people become bored with the story and want us to move on, and we have to make sure that we stick with it.

Mr. WOODS: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Monica. Monica calling us from Michigan.

MONICA (Caller): Hi. I appreciate you taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment. As a black woman in Ypsilanti, Michigan, I wanted to say that I was glued to all of the coverage--the news coverage, the NPR. I listened to it morning, noon and night. And for the most part, I was very encouraged by the coverage that I saw in the media. I felt like the reporters really gave their hearts to the story and to the people.

The only problem that I had with the coverage of the looting is I felt like that reporters didn't tell the whole story of why the people were looting. They didn't give the people a chance to understand that a lot of these people weren't looting simply because they wanted big plasma-screen television sets. They had no food, no water, no diapers, no medicine. And as a mother of four, I'm going to tell you if it came to my daughter dying because they had no water or food, I would break in someone's store, too, and steal in order to save their lives. And I just don't think that was gotten across well enough so that people would see black people weren't just out there taking advantage. Some were; you know, some people were taking advantage, but a lot of people were trying to help people who were dying.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MONICA: And that's all I had to say. Thank you.

CONAN: Monica, thanks very much for the call. Jeffrey, did you get that kind of response?

DVORKIN: I got a lot of that, that there was a sense that these were very poor people who had been affected by this enormous natural disaster and people will do things to survive. And the media may have been too quick to take a first impression and pass it on as simply looting instead of something else.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WOODS: But not only that, but if there is someone on a rooftop who needs to be saved or there's someone stuck in their attic who needs to be rescued or there are people dying in the Superdome because they need medical care, and the media is spending time covering property crimes, we've got a problem.

CONAN: Hmm. I wanted to ask you a question, and this might seem a little off the subject, but we have now become so accustomed to--on local television news every night, the weather forecast is--I think it's fair to describe it as apocalyptic. If there's going to be a snow flurry, it's going to be the blizzard of the century.

DVORKIN: Absolutely.

CONAN: If there's going to be rain, it's, you know, `Get out the duct tape.' I wonder, Keith Woods, has that desensitized us to the idea, since these are all--almost all--exaggerations? Has that desensitized us to those situations like Katrina, which are real wolves at real doors?

Mr. WOODS: Well, let's talk about New Orleans particularly and Mississippi, because what you have there is two parts of this country with some really significant experience with monster storms--Camille that slammed into Biloxi, Betsy that hit New Orleans. I am of the generation of people who got hit by Betsy. I've seen the destruction of it; I lived through a piece of it. I don't stay ever and there are many, many people who do. The culture of that city is such that they laugh in the face of those kinds of things; many, many people do.

So we might become--be, as a nation, inured now to those kinds of threats, but you've got to find the rest of the story in places like Biloxi and New Orleans to explain it, because those folks know exactly what it means to get hit and many of them still stayed.


DVORKIN: I think one of the interesting things, though, is that the fastest-growing audience for any of the cable television service is The Weather Channel. And partly it's because, as you say, Neal, they manage to convey an almost-on-the-edge-of-hysteria weather forecasting. Meteorologists are now `extreme weather experts,' and the weather person is now a `storm tracker,' and, frankly, it's terribly entertaining. But I think there is a hysterical quality to it that I think sometimes ill-serves all of us.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Andre in Phoenix: `Could you please ask your guests to comment on media censorship of the non-scripted comments from music artist Kanye West during the coverage for the fund-raiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina?' Was there media censorship?

DVORKIN: Gee, I heard it everywhere. I'm not sure anything got censored at that point.

Mr. WOODS: I think maybe Kanye might have hoped that they would have censored some of it anyway.

DVORKIN: Right, exactly. No, I heard it again and again and again and again.

CONAN: Let's get some callers on the line. And this is Eric, Eric calling us from Modesto, California.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. How you doing?

CONAN: All right.

ERIC: Thanks for having my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ERIC: I just want to say I think you guys do a great job of reporting the news, and we need to have more people out there reporting this kind of stuff, because without you guys bringing it to the people's attention, we wouldn't know what was really going on. I don't really have a lot of time to watch TV, so, you know, your radio program is right up my line. And I think you guys are not opinionated; I think you pretty much state the news as it is. You bring people who need to be spreading the news to the people and I really love the way you question the people. You ask the right questions. Good job.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much. We'll let that go, Jeffrey.

DVORKIN: Well, if there were more like that, I'd be out of work.

CONAN: All right. Let's--we've got some other issues that I know people want to talk about, so let's get some other callers on the line. This is Mike, and Mike's calling us from Denver, Colorado.

MIKE (Caller): Yeah, Neal. I definitely love your show also and, unfortunately, I don't have all praise for you like the last caller.


DVORKIN: Well, thank goodness for that.

MIKE: But just--my call concerns the pullout from Gaza. And usually the only frustration I have listening to you show is I wish you'd have more time for your guests to speak their mind. But I heard on several shows during that time where interviews were done with--they actually weren't even interviews; they were soliloquies from settlers who were getting kicked out of their homes. And I understand anybody getting kicked out of their home is going to be--it's going to be a traumatic experience, but the trauma of somebody getting kicked out of their home of 30 years, I don't see how that really compares with trauma that the Palestinians live with every day--continue to live with every day. And, you know, how about interviewing a Palestinian who had just had his home bulldozed by the Israeli army, for example?

CONAN: Jeffrey, is Mike alone in this criticism?

DVORKIN: No, he's not. What Mike's referring to are a series of commentaries that ran on NPR throughout the movement--the pulling out of the settlers from Gaza. And I think NPR was extremely careful to make sure that those commentaries were balanced, so that they would have commentaries from the point of view of the settlers and commentaries from the point of view of the Palestinians and observers who were from a perhaps more neutral perspective. And I think that NPR has taken a lot of care in making sure that its reporting on the Middle East, which is, as we know, a perennial hot issue for many in our listening audience--to make sure that it was as balanced and as nuanced as possible. And I think that...

MIKE: Yeah. I did enjoy it, but I didn't hear it every minute of every day of all the coverage, but I only heard Israeli settlers.

DVORKIN: Well...

MIKE: And even before the pullout of Gaza, you know, Palestinians have had their homes bulldozed over and over and over, and it'd be nice to hear--because we definitely don't hear it in the mainstream media. It'd be nice at least if NPR could give more Americans an idea of what it's like to be a Palestinian so that they may have a better understanding of what makes some of these guys go to desperation to blow themselves up.

DVORKIN: I think that if you go to...

MIKE: You see on the news, you know, these crazy people who are killing themselves for nothing.

DVORKIN: I think, Mike, if you go to the NPR Web site,, you will see a complete list and transcripts of every story that's been done on the Middle East, and certainly about Gaza. And I think you'll find that it's been pretty balanced.

CONAN: But, Mike, we appreciate the phone call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about coverage of Katrina and other issues, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and this is Steve, and Steve's calling us from Wichita, Kansas.

STEVE (Caller): Howdy. I want to say your coverage of the hurricane has been outstanding.

CONAN: Thank you.

STEVE: You guys actually sucked me in way back on September 11th, and I've never left, not since then, listening to the coverage. But the one thing I'm curious about is what--I've never heard a single word about Keesler Air Force Base and whatever happened there.

CONAN: This would be the coverage of the BRAC, the Base Realignment and Closing Commission?

STEVE: Nope. Keesler Air Force Base is in Biloxi, Mississippi.

CONAN: Ah, Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.

STEVE: I was there for Hurricane Camille when it was there, and we were basically about the only immediate help they had in Biloxi. We were out picking up damaged houses. We were recovering bodies, feeding the people. And so far, I've heard nothing about it in this hurricane.

DVORKIN: I think one of the things is that Mississippi Public Broadcasting has done an extraordinary job in covering their state, and a number of those reports have ended up on NPR. Again, if you go to and go to the--click on Katrina, you will find a list of all of those stories from all parts of the affected area. I don't recall a story on the Air Force base.

CONAN: I don't recall the--I don't recall Keesler, no.

DVORKIN: But there is a link to Mississippi Public Broadcasting, and I know they've done an extraordinary job.

STEVE: Amazing. It's not only NPR, but nationally also. Even during the storm, you would think The Weather Channel would have mentioned Keesler, but not a thing.

CONAN: All right. Steve, thanks very much.

STEVE: Well...

CONAN: Bye-bye.

And let's see if Corey--Corey's on the line with us from Faraday, Louisiana. Is that right?

COREY (Caller): Yes, that's right.

CONAN: Go ahead.

COREY: OK. I just had a quick comment and then maybe a question, if there's time, for Jeffrey Dvorkin. I didn't get to see him in Jackson, Mississippi, but I'm wondering if he thinks he's made any kind of difference, or if his job is basically kind of a--no offense intended--PR flak for NPR.

DVORKIN: Well, I mean, I've got the scars to prove that I don't think it's PR, but I think that one of the things about being an ombudsman is that it's about process as much as about outcome. And I think what ombudsmen at newspapers and other broadcasters try to do is to make sure that the interests and concerns, questions of accuracy, balance and taste are being looked after. I perhaps may not be the right person to make that judgment. My sense is, is that after speaking to and hearing from maybe half a million people over the last five years, that their concerns, their voices are being heard inside NPR in a way that they weren't before, so...

COREY: Well, that was my only concern, and I meant no offense.

DVORKIN: Well, I didn't take it that way.

COREY: And when you spoke about, you know, any possible biases or anything, it's an old chestnut, but if you could address this question--if you think NPR has given enough coverage to the ineptitudes of the locals. Being here in Louisiana, it's pretty rampant, and--or if it's just been kind of easier to blame the administration. Thank you.

DVORKIN: Well, I think, actually, there hasn't been an equivalent amount of reporting on the local issues as much as there has been on the federal and national issues. And as we heard earlier, it is primarily a federal obligation to be prepared in these cases, so--but I think the point is a good one, that there could be more reporting done on the local impact or lack thereof.

CONAN: Corey, thanks very much for the call.

COREY: Thank you.

CONAN: And we'd like to thank Keith Woods for his time today. Nice of you to take the time out to join us.

Mr. WOODS: My pleasure.

CONAN: Keith Woods is dean of the faculty at The Poynter Institute and joined us from their studio in St. Petersburg in Florida.

Jeffrey Dvorkin joined us here in Studio 3A. Always nice to have you on the program, Jeffrey.

DVORKIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we're going to get an update on the investigation into last July's attacks in London on transportation systems. Later in the program, we'll also be remembering Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter.

I'm Neal Conan. We're back after the break. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


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