Morning News Brief

Oct 30, 2018
Originally published on October 30, 2018 7:47 am
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today the president and first lady visit Pittsburgh.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trumps are visiting days after a man opened fire inside a synagogue in the city, killing 11 and injuring six. On a day of funerals with emotions still raw, some, including the mayor of Pittsburgh, are asking, why this day?

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BILL PEDUTO: I do believe that it would be best to put the attention on the families this week and, if he were to visit, choose a different time to be able to do it.

GREENE: Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking to CNN.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brakkton Booker is covering this story from Pittsburgh. Brakkton, good morning.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So we heard the mayor of Pittsburgh there. What are other people in the community saying about the president's visit?

BOOKER: Well, Steve, it's really a mix. A lot of people simply just didn't want to talk about the president's visit. They say that politics didn't have a place here at this time. Now, one rabbi told me that he was busy urging his community to, quote, "stand up for their beliefs," adding that he was telling people to be proud that they were Jewish.

Some expressed fears of clashes between the president's supporters and those who oppose his visit. But the White House, they pushed back, saying that Trump is coming to express his support for the American people and grieve with the Pittsburgh community.

INSKEEP: OK, so what exactly is it that people would want to hear from the president, given that mixed reaction?

BOOKER: Well, truthfully, for some people, it really just doesn't matter what the president has to say at all. There are some people that are just going to really ignore everything that the president says. Now, there are some groups, like the progressive-leaning Bend the Arc. They wrote an open letter to Trump urging him not to come, saying, quote, "President Trump, you are not welcome in Pittsburgh until you fully denounce white nationalism."

But not all felt that way. There is an executive director of the D.C.-based Republican Jewish Coalition. He told CNN that Trump's condemnation of anti-Semitism was, quote, "very powerful and strong." And also, Steve, I attended community service at Carnegie Mellon University, not far from where the shooting took place in Squirrel Hill. I met a professor, Professor Joel Greenhouse, who was cautiously optimistic that the president could be a consoler in chief. Have a listen.

JOEL GREENHOUSE: I don't feel as if he can actually contribute to the healing process. If he could, that would be really inspirational. And if that's not what will be the outcome, then it's probably better to leave us to our own devices to come together. And we're doing a pretty good job at it I think.

BOOKER: So there you hear it. Then other people are just reserving judgment until the visit happens.

INSKEEP: Well, there's a bit of a dilemma here - isn't there, Brakkton? - because a part of the president's job, traditionally, has been to console the nation in moments like this. It's something that past presidents have done that this president has been fairly explicit about not being interested in. He is interested in conflict. He's interested in driving divisions that work for him and work for his policies and work for his beliefs. And that's where he goes.

BOOKER: Well, I think that's right. And we heard from the Pittsburgh mayor, Bill Peduto, in the clip you played. And he's a Democrat. And he's telling of - he's telling folks to - he's telling the president to not come until at least the burials have taken place. Now, the first funerals take place this morning, with brothers Cecil and David Rosenthal. They were both in their 50s and some of the youngest people that died. And later today, there's Jerry Rabinowitz.

Now, other funerals go on throughout the week. And one woman I spoke to named Gerry Spann (ph) told me that of course, this is a - it is a politically charged moment. After all, the midterms are just a week away. And she told me - she tells me that she's not expecting much from the president's visit, but she is hoping that down the line there will be political change on the national level.

GERRY SPANN: I want to find other ways to commit myself to change, both - both in terms of my volunteer commitments, since I'm retired, and in terms of changing our national leadership.

INSKEEP: OK, one of the voices we've heard in Pittsburgh through NPR's Brakkton Booker. Brakkton, thanks so much, really appreciate it.

BOOKER: Thanks, Steve.

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INSKEEP: How do fake narratives and conspiracy theories make it from the far corners of the Internet to mainstream conversation or even the president's Twitter feed?

GREENE: Well, this question carries new urgency after the events of recent days. One man allegedly sent multiple pipe bombs to political and media figures. And then another killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. Both were involved in social media conversations that featured explicit, racist diatribes before they ventured into terrorism.

INSKEEP: Well, how do conspiracy theories persist and spread? Will Sommer has spent a lot of time thinking about this. He reports on fringe right-wing media for The Daily Beast. Good morning, sir.

WILL SOMMER: Good morning, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Thanks for coming by. What's an example of how this works, the way that a conspiracy theory would start and go - go national, go big?

SOMMER: Sure, absolutely. So really the most obvious example right now is the so-called caravan coming up from Honduras. We've seen the president send troops down to the border, basically to respond to essentially a fiction, in terms of the actual danger posed to the United States. This is something that bubbled up really on, you know, fringe YouTube videos, Twitter, Reddit threads. And now we see the president reacting to it.

INSKEEP: Oh, wait a minute. You're saying that this - you can trace this back. And some time before the president became exercised about this, it was a big deal on various sites.

SOMMER: Exactly. So there's been some analysis that looks at really the first mentions of this and the various, you know, sort of fake news essentially used to promote this. You know, people will take a picture of someone with boils. And then they'll say, oh, you know, this is someone in the caravan. And it's completely unrelated, but it kind of ramps up the hype about it.

INSKEEP: And you end up with someone on Fox News, which I believe happened yesterday, saying, gosh, these people might be bringing any number of diseases.

SOMMER: Right, leprosy or what have you, yes.

INSKEEP: And the president of the United States talks about this. Has this happened a lot with the president?

SOMMER: Absolutely. This is far from the first time. You know, I think the most obvious example is when the president claimed after the 2016 election that 3 million illegal votes were cast, costing him the popular vote. That was an idea he clearly got through various channels - from InfoWars. And he sort of used that to then create the presidential voter fraud commission.

INSKEEP: What are some of the influential sites here? The word Gab, I think, is new to some people because the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting had been active making anti-Semitic remarks on Gab. What are some of the other ones that are key?

SOMMER: Sure. So there's various - it's almost like a mirror world for all these various sites. So, you know, YouTube would obviously be the main video site. Well, if you're kicked off YouTube, you might go to a website called, like, BitChute or something. And so there's various versions of Facebook and Twitter and so on.

INSKEEP: And they don't say, we're racist; we're here to be racist, right?

SOMMER: Well, you know, it's interesting. Some of them do actively court the "alt-right." Some of them have positioned themselves more as a broader free-speech platform. In the case of Gab, I think they definitely did a lot of outreach to the "alt-right." And that was sort of part of their business model.

INSKEEP: Are they are becoming more influential?

SOMMER: You know, it's interesting. I think they're very prominent within their niche. I mean, these sites are still, like, fractions of a fraction of what a mainstream social media site would have.

INSKEEP: And do they get directly to policy makers? Or is there some intermediate...

SOMMER: Well, you know, we've seen the president's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, mention Gab before, say that he would join if they would fix some technical issues. So there are some links to the mainstream Republican Party.

INSKEEP: Will Sommer, thanks for coming by, really appreciate it.

SOMMER: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: He reports for The Daily Beast.

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INSKEEP: And let's get an update now on one of the news stories that can be driven by conspiracy theories. The U.S. will deploy more than 5,000 troops to the border with Mexico in an effort to stop a caravan of migrants, some of whom say they eventually want to reach asylum in the United States.

GREENE: Last night, in an interview with Laura Ingraham, the president said there are, quote, "a lot of bad people in the caravan." And he called it an invasion.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thousands and thousands of people on the bridge. When you looked at that bridge loaded up with people, that's called an invasion of our country.

GREENE: And in a tweet, President Trump said, quote, "our military is waiting for you," end quote. Mexican authorities estimate that the caravan has about 3 to 5,000 travelers.

INSKEEP: Let's check that out with freelance journalist David Agren, who's been traveling with the caravan. He's now back in Mexico City. He was with them just days ago. Welcome to the program.

DAVID AGREN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First I want to get a sense of how far away this caravan is from the border. We're told that U.S. troops will be at the U.S.-Mexico border within days. Is the caravan within days of the United States?

AGREN: No, not at all. It's still probably close to a thousand miles away from the closest U.S. port of entry. And also, many in the caravan are saying that their destination is Tijuana, which - obviously, across from San Diego. And that's quite a bit more distance. With any luck, they would make it to Mexico City probably around the first - the end of the first week of November. And that's still quite a ways to go.

INSKEEP: And let's check the size of this because yesterday we heard on NPR News from the Mexican ambassador to the United States, who said that Mexican authorities are trying to keep tabs on this group and that it had declined in size considerably. And he thought it was about 3,500 people. Do you have any way to estimate that yourself?

AGREN: Nobody knows for sure. Obviously, the official number that was given at the time, last week, was 3,600 with - and just yesterday the interior minister said about 1,895 people had applied for asylum. Another 500 had asked to go home voluntarily. Mayors along the route had put the number at closer to 6,000. That was just based - because - on the number of people that they were serving because they're obviously providing a lot of food and obviously assistance for the migrants. So nobody knows for sure. But it would probably be higher than that.

INSKEEP: OK. So it may be higher than 3,500, according to the best information that you have. I guess the next question is how many of them are determined to reach the United States as opposed to accepting this Mexican offer of asylum or taking some other course?

AGREN: Well, the migrants themselves had a nightly - they tend to have a nightly assembly, where they - when they arrive in a village, what they'll do is they'll set up camp. And they'll be in the town square. And they will have an assembly in which they will vote on proposals, usually that meaning when they will leave the next morning, what route they will take.

And the proposal was read to them. And they voted to not accept it. I spoke with migrants who just simply said their goal is to reach the United States. So that was - so most of them will do their best to get to the United States.

INSKEEP: OK. So some of them - some of them are coming to the border, could be here, could be in the Unites States eventually.

AGREN: Eventually, yes. I mean, there's no - nobody's really sure how quickly they'll get to - they'll get there. They're probably - they're moving about 40 miles a day, some days more, some days less. But that's still putting them probably late November at the earliest that they would get to the border at Tijuana.

INSKEEP: OK, David Agren, reporter who's been traveling with the caravan. Thanks so much.

AGREN: Oh, you're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIGNAL HILL'S, "A SECRET SOCIETY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.