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News Brief: Debate Aftermath, Post-Election Threats, COVID-19 Tests

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So if you were kind of cringing during the first presidential debate, you are not alone.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Even the organizers weren't happy with all the interruptions from President Trump, all the crosstalk. So they are planning some format changes for the remaining debates. And Republican leaders are dealing with the fallout from a particular exchange during debate one. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others are calling Trump out for failing to condemn white supremacist groups. The president was back on the campaign trail yesterday; so was his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

GREENE: That's right. Biden was riding the rails through the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania. And NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow was on that trip. He is now in Wilmington, Del. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's start with the president. He was in Minnesota last night. Did this - did his comment about the Proud Boys, not condemning white supremacy, did all this come up?

DETROW: He was asked by reporters about it earlier in the day, and he said he did not know who the Proud Boys are. His quote was, I can only say they have to stand down and let law enforcement do their work. But as you said, this was a day in which the president came under tremendous pressure for not condemning the group at the debate. As a reminder, what he said in that high-profile setting was, Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. There are a lot of signs that statement that millions saw and heard was viewed by many within that movement as encouragement. And throughout the day, Joe Biden said he worried that President Trump was signaling to them and to other right-wing groups to maybe take violent action after the election. Among many, many other implications of that, it's really hard to see how that statement and the performance as a whole won over undecided voters. But in Minnesota, President Trump was defending his debate performance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Last night, I did what the corrupt media has refused to do. I held Joe Biden accountable for his 47 years of lies, 47 years of betrayals and 47 years of failure.

(CHEERING)

GREENE: So the crowd we're hearing there in Minnesota, which is a state that the president lost narrowly in 2016, right, Scott? I mean, he's gone back there several times now. What does that tell you about his strategy right now?

DETROW: Yeah. He thinks this is one of the few states that went Democrat that he can flip. The polls don't really indicate that at all right now. But he was in a place with a lot of rural, white, working-class voters, northern Minnesota. This is a group that traditionally has really supported President Trump. And the Trump campaign also thinks that they can make headway with suburban voters in Minnesota because of the unrest and mass protests that followed George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. But polls show that voters have not been receptive to that message, do not necessarily trust the president over Joe Biden on the issue of unrest. And he's losing the suburbs by wide margins all over, according to surveys.

GREENE: And so as for Joe Biden, you were with him following him yesterday. And it sounds like it involved a lot of travel by rail.

DETROW: It certainly did - certainly Joe Biden's favorite mode of transportation. He just got happier and happier as he was on Amtrak throughout the day. He was going through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania; again, kind of a similar dynamic of voters that Trump was courting in northern Minnesota. These are filled with people who feel that Democrats abandoned them, at worst disdain them. Biden told me at the end of the day, he thinks a lot of voters in places like Johnstown and Latrobe in Pennsylvania, white, working-class voters in particular, feel like the party has abandoned them. And that's why it stuck out to me that Biden made this pitch multiple times yesterday.

JOE BIDEN: He said, take a chance, take a chance on me. And now I understand why some people did take a chance because the fact of the matter is he said that he was going to make sure that he took care of you all. You know, he had his chance, though. Now we know exactly who Donald Trump is.

DETROW: So Biden thinks he has an opening with this type of voter. And that's why he was focusing on things like health care, like his support for unions, like wanting to to raise wages, issues he thinks could appeal to white, working-class voters in western Pennsylvania. And even if he doesn't win the counties in places like Johnstown and Latrobe, just losing them by a smaller margin could help him win back the state. David, I feel like I should also tell you that Biden hit peak western Pennsylvania at one point in Latrobe. He was meeting with Steelers great Franco Harris, and they both made a FaceTime call to Joanne Rogers, the widow of Latrobe native Mr. Rogers. It was really a lot of Pennsylvania.

GREENE: That is so my part of the world, western Pennsylvania. I can't believe I'm sitting here doing a show in a dark room and you're out there with - in Steeler Country. I'm jealous. Well, I do want to ask you about the debates. There are three debates left before Election Day, two presidential, one vice presidential; sounds like no one was happy with the first one and the organizers are actually thinking of big changes.

DETROW: I guess President Trump was happy, but really, I don't think anybody else was at all. No specifics yet, but the Commission on Presidential Debates has said that Tuesday's debate, quote, "made clear that additional structure should be added to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues." Again, no word on what that would actually be. That is something that Biden was calling for during the day yesterday. President Trump's campaign came out against any changes, saying President Trump was, quote, "the dominant force and now Joe Biden is trying to work the refs." There was some chatter in some Democratic circles that maybe two more debates aren't even worth going to. But Biden said he is looking forward to the next few debates. And he said he thought it's particularly important that he and President Trump talk to voters in the next town hall format.

GREENE: NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow on the road. Scott, I'm sure we'll be talking to you again soon. Thanks.

DETROW: Sounds good.

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GREENE: So we may be calling it Election Day, but there might not be actual results for days, if not weeks, in the presidential race, and that's because of all the mail-in voting.

MARTIN: Right. And during this waiting game, there is some kind of fear that people will start spreading conspiracy theories, especially on social media. Facebook and Twitter say they are well aware of this. They don't want their platforms used to undermine the democratic process. But what are they going to do about it?

GREENE: So before we chat about this, we do want to note that Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. And let's turn now to NPR's Shannon Bond, who's been looking at all of this. She's in San Francisco. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So you're talking to social media companies about these fears. What are they telling you?

BOND: Well, you know, they've been thinking about the election and misinformation for a long time, looking back to the lessons of 2016 when Russia used social media to try to manipulate voters and also, you know, things like the 2018 midterms, other elections around the world. A lot of this planning takes the form of these threat modeling exercises. So the companies, you know, come up with different attacks and then game out how they would respond. Yoel Roth, who leads site integrity at Twitter, gave me some examples.

YOEL ROTH: A high-profile figure's account gets taken over to the possibility of a large-scale spam or bot attack to the risks of foreign interference like we saw in 2016.

BOND: But this time, as Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told All Things Considered this week, you know, these companies are concerned about what happens not just before the election but also after November 3. Both Twitter and Facebook say they're now going to be cracking down on posts that say, for example, voting by mail is somehow fraudulent, posts that advocate violence to disrupt the transfer of power or premature claims of victory. And they'll do that by either labeling or removing.

GREENE: We should say that some of these kinds of messages and spreading doubts have come from none other than the president of the United States himself. I mean, does that fact complicate things for these companies and what they can do?

BOND: Well, right. We heard this again from President Trump this week at the debate. He suggested he might not accept the results of this election. You know, in the case of Facebook, this company has come around pretty reluctantly to the idea that they might have to somehow moderate what the president says. And, of course, we've had elections before where we've had to wait to find out who won. Remember back in 2000, the Bush versus Gore fight that dragged on for more than a month after Election Day? But disinformation expert Clint Watts says, you know, we live in a different world now.

CLINT WATTS: Yeah, there were some angry lawyers in Bush versus Gore, but it was pretty tame compared to today.

BOND: And of course, there wasn't Twitter or Facebook 20 years ago.

GREENE: That's true. And, I mean, you cover these companies, Twitter, Facebook. Are they up to this, I mean, if this becomes a real mess?

BOND: Well, you know, this is not just about the rules that they're making. It's about whether they enforce these rules and enforce them consistently. And, frankly, the track record isn't particularly great. You know, Facebook specifically has come under a lot of criticism for just not doing that, not enforcing things evenly. Just this week, the Biden campaign called Facebook, quote, "the nation's foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process" because it's chosen to label and not take down, you know, posts by Trump that have attacked voting. Now, Facebook insists it applies its policies fairly. But, you know, to answer the question, we just don't know if the social networks can hold the line after the election.

GREENE: NPR's Shannon Bond. Shannon, thanks so much.

BOND: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This sounds like good news. Some coronavirus tests are getting cheaper and faster.

MARTIN: Right, but there's a catch. Sorry. The new tests are actually less accurate. And yet public health experts say the newer testing could change the way the country handles the pandemic.

GREENE: And we're joined by NPR's Rob Stein, senior editor on NPR's Science Desk. Rob, thanks for being here.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: No problem, David.

GREENE: So what's changing here with these coronavirus tests?

STEIN: So, you know, until now, testing is mainly been used to diagnose people who may have COVID and to test people who had contact with an infected person to see if they caught the virus. But that just hasn't gotten the pandemic under control. I talked about this with Ashish Jha. He's the dean of Brown School of Public Health. He says this new generation of fast, cheap coronavirus tests could spark a paradigm shift in how testing is used in this country.

ASHISH JHA: It is a paradigm shift. What I think new testing capacity allows us to do is actually play offense, go and hunt for the disease before it spreads to identify asymptomatic people before they spread it to others. It really becomes about preventing outbreaks, not just capturing them after they've occurred.

STEIN: You know, by regularly testing people like all nursing home residents and staff, every prison guard, firefighters, police, EMTs, teachers and other staff in K-12, you know, eventually, you know, waiters, bartenders, store clerks, that sort of thing.

GREENE: Well, I mean, as Rachel mentioned, there are questions about the accuracy of these new faster tests, right? I mean, how big a concern is that?

STEIN: Yeah. So they do tend to be less accurate. They can produce more, you know, false negatives, missing people when they really are infected and more false positives saying someone is infected when they're really not. But advocates say these tests tend to spot people when they're the most infectious, which is the most important thing. And any shortcomings are outweighed by the ability to quickly test people over and over and over again.

GREENE: So, Rob, if we're talking about, you know, testing so many people, I mean, teachers and EMTs and the police and firefighters and people who work in restaurants, as you said, that's a lot of testing, right? I mean, are they available? How many are we talking about here?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, Jha and a team at Harvard just completed a new analysis for NPR factoring in the growing availability of these new coronavirus tests. And it concludes that at a bare minimum, the U.S. would need more than 4 million tests a day. Now, you know, the U.S. has never gotten above about a million tests a day, but these new fast tests, they're known as antigen tests, are becoming more widely available. The federal government has started sending 150 million to states. Companies are ramping up to produce tens of millions of them a day - I mean a month. So by some estimates, the U.S. could get there by the end of the year.

Now, it is important to remember 4 million is just the bare minimum. This new analysis also concludes that the U.S. needs way more than that, more than 14 million tests a day, to do things like screen school kids and doctors and nurses and store clerks - the kind of screening that could, you know, help the economy open safely. But there are some projections that the U.S. testing capacity could ramp up even more next year. And so, you know, researchers like Ashish Jha at Harvard say it's crucial to come up with a smart strategy to deploy these tests the right way to really to be effective in the way we use them.

GREENE: All right. NPR's Rob Stein, senior editor on NPR's Science Desk. Rob, thanks so much for all this.

STEIN: My pleasure, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.