Morning news brief
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
More than a lot of other nations, India moves by railroads.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The world's most populous country has one of the world's busiest rail systems. Its older trains feature in Bollywood movies. Its newer ones are a symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's economic modernization. So how did three trains collide, killing at least 275 people?
INSKEEP: Journalist Shalu Yadav has been following this story from New Delhi.
Welcome to the program.
SHALU YADAV: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Hadn't India just been spending a lot of money upgrading the rail network? I'd been reading about this.
YADAV: Yes, Steve. And in recent years, the number of accidents have gone down because Modi government has spent billions of dollars to modernize the system. But even so, Indian railways remain a huge work in progress. You got to remember, Steve, this is one of the largest and oldest railways networks in the world, most of it built by the British. And so maintenance is a bit of a Herculean task, even if you're spending lots of money. And Prime Minister Modi has prioritized high-speed trains in particular as part of his idea of connecting India faster. But some critics say that that's come at the expense of maintaining the older trains and the system that they run on.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is interesting because from the images of this terrible wreckage, these look like the classic colorful, older Indian trains.
INSKEEP: Are the older ones on completely different safety systems?
YADAV: Well, most aspects of the older trains, I would say, remain on the older safety system. Not much upgrading has happened to accommodate even the high-speed trains. Now, India's railway minister has hinted that a signal failure is the likely cause that led to this disaster, but he did not rule out a human error.
YADAV: Authorities say that both trains had approached Balasore district station under a green signal, indicating it was all safe. But it went horribly wrong. A passenger train en route to the southern city of Chennai derailed after it rammed into a stationary freight train. Its coaches that fell on the opposite track then got hit by another passenger train that was coming in high speed from the other side...
YADAV: ...Leading to the worst train disaster this country has seen in two decades, Steve.
INSKEEP: How important is Indian train service, whether it's upgraded or not?
YADAV: Pretty important. It's, in fact, called the lifeline of the country, as it ferries over 25 million people every day. And it connects this vast country of 1.4 billion people. It's often, you know, the cheapest and fastest medium to get around for most people in the country, especially the working class, who depend on it to get to the - you know, their workplace, from villages to the cities. Even milk supplies and petrol supplies depend on trains. And many of the families of the victims and the injured, Steve, they are still dependent on train services, too, to find their loved ones. And with that service disrupted, some are now taking long journeys by road to reach the spot where officials say that over a hundred bodies are still unclaimed or unidentified.
INSKEEP: How is the recovery effort going?
YADAV: Well, it's still ongoing in full swing as we speak, Steve. It's taken over 1,000 rescue workers, who've been working over 24/7, you know, of - since Friday night with heavy machinery to try and clear the tons of debris that lay on the tracks. Officials say that the operation should be back to normal by Tuesday night or Wednesday, Steve.
INSKEEP: Journalist Shalu Yadav is in New Delhi.
Thank you so much.
YADAV: Thank you for having me.
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INSKEEP: Today and tomorrow, hundreds of journalists at newspapers across this country walk off the job.
MARTIN: They all work for Gannett, which owns papers across the country, including USA Today.
INSKEEP: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us.
Hey there, David.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: How widespread is this strike?
FOLKENFLIK: So it's starting this morning in seven states, California, Arizona, Texas, Indiana and New Jersey, near where I live. That includes papers like the Arizona Republic, the Austin American-Statesman, some big ones where journalists are working without contracts. They say that they have not received fair pay and compensation, but more to the point, haven't received it in many, many years. And meanwhile, their newsrooms have been cut back deeply.
INSKEEP: David, we've paid a lot of attention to the cutbacks in local newsrooms. And, in fact, they've been cut so savagely over the years, I was a little surprised there's anybody left in some newsrooms to walk out. What do they want?
FOLKENFLIK: You know, and by the way, that's literally true in some cases. Salinas, Calif., a city of 150,000, owned by Gannett, has no local reporters - or at last check, none locally based.
FOLKENFLIK: Journalists want to draw attention to their circumstances, sure. But it's a more profound critique. Today is the day in which shareholders are meeting. They want to draw attention to, among other things, the compensation of millions of dollars in pay and shares to chief executive Mike Reed. He's been at the helm at a time where, for the last four years, you've had this merger of these two large newspaper companies, Gannett and the former GateHouse community newspaper company.
They merged together. According to the president of the union I talked to in recent days, he says those newsrooms have been cut since that merger by 56%. And you see it throughout the properties, the meagerness of the report at times. Sometimes, as I said, just one or a handful of staffers are intended to report on the texture of lives in all these cities and communities - one newspaper in Springfield, Ill., where the editor is based and also overseeing the editor in Lakeland, Fla., several states away and another smaller one nearby. If you look at the Top 5 stories on any given day, it looks like two or three of them are going to be about Powerball winnings. That is something that could be produced by bots.
INSKEEP: How does Gannett explain itself?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, they talk about the tough times of the news business, which have been significant and real. They talk about a new news leader they brought over from McClatchy. And they say this will be part of a new strategy to infuse real life and vigor into their local reporting. But the financial realities of that merger that I talked about a few moments ago are such that they were required to cut, initially, it looked like between two to $300 million. Now it looks like it's more like $400 million in cuts. And I think that scythe cutting across the newsrooms across the country is what you're seeing, really, much more as a result of that.
INSKEEP: Well, this short-term walkout is being led, I know, by the NewsGuild, which represents staffers at a lot of news outlets. Do they have very much leverage?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, they've won some wins. They've been organizing at digital and print newsrooms around the country in recent years because of these pressures on the industry. You know, in Pittsburgh, there's been a many-monthslong strike at the Post-Gazette that has not really yielded any more advances for the workers than what they were experiencing in the years that negotiations were taking there to achieve. But meanwhile, at The New York Times, you know, the most august name in news, after years of sort of conflict, you saw a recent pact in which there was a 10% minimum increase for all newsroom employees and a 7% signing bonus and a lot of other concessions as well. So I think you're seeing, to some degree, wind at the back of these NewsGuild workers, even as, I think, the greater dynamics in the industry, and especially at Gannett, are very daunting.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Folkenflik.
Thanks so much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
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INSKEEP: We now have the backstory to an unusual move against voter fraud.
MARTIN: For some time now, Republicans have been making an issue of the accuracy of voter rolls. And even after thousands of elections officials and dozens of courts affirmed the results of the 2020 election, some officials say they are still concerned. And some have turned against a bipartisan system used to clean up voter rolls. Eight Republican-led states have now abandoned this system that helps keep voter registration information up to date.
INSKEEP: The NPR investigations team and our voting correspondent, Miles Parks, found out how this happened. Hey there, Miles.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is this system?
PARKS: Essentially, it's a partnership. It allows states to share data to keep their voter rolls up to date, so election officials can know when their voters move, when they die, and occasionally, when they vote illegally in more than one state. And for the past decade, it has worked as something of a bipartisan success story.
INSKEEP: Doing the work that Republicans want, along with a lot of Democrats, states collaborating in this thing known by the acronym ERIC. So how did so many Republicans turn against ERIC?
PARKS: It all goes back to a far-right website called the Gateway Pundit. This is a website that has published a number of conspiracy theories in the past, including the birther theory about former President Barack Obama, COVID vaccine misinformation. Last January, they started targeting ERIC, saying that it was funded by liberal billionaire George Soros - he's a common thread in a lot of conspiracy theories - saying it was a far-left plot to steal elections. None of that is true. Still, we found that it motivated, effectively, a number of Republican election officials to act.
INSKEEP: Including, in the first state, Louisiana.
PARKS: Right. We centered in on Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who was the first secretary of state to pull out of ERIC. We found that he announced his decision quietly in a press release at the time. But we found video on Facebook that showed he actually brought the decision to a small election integrity group.
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KYLE ARDOIN: This week, I sent a letter to the Election Registration Information Center, suspending Louisiana's participation in that program.
PARKS: So these sorts of groups have popped up all over the country since 2020, motivated by former President Trump's lies about voting. And you can hear in that clip just how thrilled they are about Ardoin's decision.
INSKEEP: So he's responding to this small - relatively small group of voters. But it's a kind of group you could find in many states. Is that how this spread?
PARKS: That's exactly right. We saw a common thread with a lot of these states. One, Ardoin was gearing up to run for reelection. And a number of the Republican officials who have pulled out of ERIC are now gearing up to run for higher office. Secondly, we saw a trend with these sorts of local election integrity groups. We found callouts across the country where these groups mobilize their members to pressure state lawmakers and election officials to pull out of ERIC, which brings me to a woman named Cleta Mitchell. You might remember her. She's an influential Republican election attorney who worked really closely with former President Donald Trump in 2020 to try to overturn that election. She started a coalition of these local election integrity groups across the country. And she's used her podcast to push a lot of anti-ERIC narratives.
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CLETA MITCHELL: We want more citizens to say to their legislators, do not continue your membership, withdraw their membership.
INSKEEP: OK, so the election denial movement has scored some successes in eight states, might do it in some more. What does all this mean for the 2024 election?
PARKS: Election officials tell me two things. One, the voting lists in these states will almost certainly be less up to date, which means less secure elections. And that can have downstream effects on voters. It could potentially mean mail ballots getting sent to the wrong places. It can mean longer lines at precincts.
INSKEEP: Creating less secure elections, which they say they're against.
PARKS: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.