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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Biden and his predecessor now have something in common. Biden and Donald Trump are both facing allegations that they mishandled classified documents.

DWANE BROWN, HOST:

But how are these cases different, and how are news outlets covering this latest revelation?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: CBS News has learned the Department of Justice is reviewing classified Obama-Biden records.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Several classified documents from his time as VP under the Obama administration.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The issue here is much more about politics than about law.

FADEL: Now, we asked NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik to help us unpack the coverage of this story, and he joins us now. Good morning, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so let's start at the beginning. How did this story break, and how was it presented?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's think about this for a moment. There really haven't been a ton of scandals during the Biden presidency affecting Joe Biden himself, beyond his troubled son, Hunter. So consider it a little bit of a media test case. CBS broke it, as we just heard. Biden's attorneys disclosed through the White House about a dozen documents were found with classified markings at this university center in Washington, where the former vice president was before he became president. And they informed the National Archive and cooperating with the Justice Department. It's being reviewed by a Trump-appointed U.S. attorney in Chicago. That gets disclosed, and then it bursts out everywhere, a new scandal to cover after days of coverage of Republican dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

FADEL: And how has it been covered? How did different media outlets cover this story?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think that you saw a bunch of coverage of the initial disclosure, which was as factual as we knew, very limited set of facts so far. A lot of questions remain. And then you saw a burst of speculation. You saw places like Punchbowl News, which focuses on Capitol Hill and Washington politics, portraying it as giving the Republicans a win because they could beat up the president over it. You know, you think of a place that's often critical of the president. Fox gave it a lot of coverage Monday, to be sure, but actually CNN far more so. There was a review late last night by Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog group making that case. That was consistent with my review of the transcripts for shows on CNN, Fox, Times, the primetime shows - two times as much on CNN, three times as much, four times as much likely to be covering this as other issues. It suggests, you know, that CNN really decided, yes, to provide a lot of context, but also to go all in.

I must say that coverage became calmer and more contextualized from Monday evening over the course of the day Tuesday, analyses being brought on the air involving a lot of former government officials.

FADEL: I think there's been a tendency to want to compare the Trump classified documents scandal and what Biden is facing now. But this isn't an apples-to-apples comparison, right?

FOLKENFLIK: It's not apples to apples. I mean, let's be really clear. Trump and his lawyers didn't disclose they had these things. They said things that weren't true to the National Archives and to lawyers for the government. They then fought returned documents. It turned out there were hundreds of documents bearing markings of classified designations and that these were also, in some cases, documents with nuclear secrets - not the case for the Biden thing as far as we know. You know, look, there was a time where Bill Clinton's former national security adviser slipped documents out of the National Archives in the George W. Bush years in his clothing. He was criminally charged. So far, that's not the case here. Journalists do a disservice if they equate things that aren't the same. But yet, let's remember, this is consequential and has to be covered.

FADEL: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much for your time.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In California, powerful storms have killed at least 17 people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

BROWN: And more torrential rain is on the way. Here's California Governor Gavin Newsom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GAVIN NEWSOM: We're not out of the woods. We expect these storms to continue at least through the 18 of this month. We expect a minimum three more of these atmospheric rivers.

FADEL: NPR's Nathan Rott is in one of the affected areas in Ventura County, northwest of Los Angeles. He joins us now. Good morning, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So what's the situation where you are?

ROTT: All right, so some parts of this county got more than 18 inches of rain over two days, just to give you a little perspective here. So there's still some localized flooding, road closures. But generally speaking, Ventura County is doing better than a lot of places along the California coast. The Ventura River, which cuts along the west end of town, is down significantly compared to where it was. But even still, Leila, this is a river where it meets the coast that you can usually kind of roll up your pants, walk or even jump across. And yesterday when I went down there, it was at least 50 yards wide and who knows how deep because it...

FADEL: Wow.

ROTT: ...Looked like chocolate milk that you definitely wouldn't want to drink.

FADEL: Oh, man. So more than a dozen people had to be rescued from that river, right?

ROTT: Yeah, that's right. There was a lot of coverage about it here. I actually talked to some of those folks. They are unhoused and usually live in a little tent encampment down by the river. They're now camped out under a nearby overpass. One of the guys, Frankie, who didn't want to give his last name because some of his family don't know that he's currently homeless, said his brother actually woke him up in his tent when the flooding started. And I'll let him tell you the rest.

FRANKIE: I looked outside, and it was already ankle deep all around the tent. In probably about 20 minutes it was up to our waist. And by the time they shot a ladder over the bridge down to us, we were hanging on to tree stumps, you know, tree foliage, you know, coming out of the ground and stuff like that. We were just seven of us. We climbed up on the ladder and rescued.

ROTT: And he said it was probably one of the scariest moments of his life.

FADEL: Sounds terrifying. How's the rest of the state doing with all of this water?

ROTT: This really depends on the location. There's been widespread flooding along some parts of the coast. There were some levee failures inland. San Francisco was seeing pea-sized hail for a while yesterday. And this whole storm system isn't over, as we heard from the governor. Mike Anderson, the state climatologist, said in a press conference yesterday, there's still uncertainty about how severe the upcoming storms later this week and weekend will be. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL ANDERSON: Challenge now that we're getting to is that the rivers are not receding as much as they were earlier due to how much rain has fallen and the volume of water in the system.

ROTT: So any new water coming from these upcoming atmospheric rivers won't have as many places to go, which, of course, could lead to even more flooding.

FADEL: So let's talk about climate change and the role it's playing in these storms.

ROTT: Yeah. So, look, it's still too early for us - for any attribution science to have been done, which is basically how we'd be able to definitively say that, yes, climate change has played a role in these storms. The link between climate change and atmospheric rivers, which are normal phenomena here in California and in many parts of the world - that is still not totally clear. What we can say, though, is that warmer air holds more moisture, and that's what's been fueling some of these really destructive hurricanes we've experienced in the Southeast. And so we do know the world's air is warmer because of human actions, so these kinds of major precipitation events are expected to happen more frequently into the future.

FADEL: NPR's Nathan Rott in Ventura, Calif., thank you so much.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you, Leila.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: In Ukraine, Russia and mercenaries aligned with the Kremlin have made small advances in recent days. Officials say intense fighting is continuing in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

BROWN: Advances in the nearby village of Soledar could lead to Bakhmut becoming encircled. It would be a rare military victory for Russia, however small.

FADEL: To understand what this means for the ongoing war in Ukraine, we turn to NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who's in Kyiv. Morning, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So a rare Russian success - how big of a deal is this?

NADWORNY: Yeah, so we're actually talking about a small settlement in the eastern part of Ukraine in the Donbas. The Wagner Group, a mercenary force run by a friend of Vladimir Putin, has been fighting to take this area since summer. So there is conflicting word on who controls this village of Soledar, known for its salt mine. Ukraine's Defense Ministry says fighting is still happening. The leader of Wagner has been posting to Telegram with tempered gains. Capturing Soledar - that would allow Russia to potentially envelop Bakhmut. These minor tactical advances - like, we're talking block by block gains by Russia - they're significant mostly because Russia has struggled to make any operational gains. So they're standing out because they're so rare, but it doesn't mean it's a Russian turning point. Karolina Hird is a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and she says the real significance is the cost of this advance for Russia.

KAROLINA HIRD: The Ukrainians have very, very successfully pinned Russian forces up against Soledar and Bakhmut for six months and used this to basically just continue pulling Russian troops, Russian equipment to this area and basically burning through it.

NADWORNY: Hird made clear that the Russian capture of Soledar - it doesn't guarantee that Bakhmut will be encircled.

FADEL: OK, Elissa, but help us understand the significance of Bakhmut. Like, why does Russia want this area so badly?

NADWORNY: Yeah, well, there is a highway system that runs through Bakhmut, which is helpful for Ukrainian communication, moving troops. President Zelenskyy recently visited Bakhmut just before his trip to the U.S. Congress. And hold Bakhmut has kind of become this rallying cry here in Ukraine. The fighting there, Zelenskyy said, has brought Ukraine additional time and military power. I talked with Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert here. He says, for Russia and the Wagner Group, winning here sends a strong message home.

OLEH ZHDANOV: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "For Russia," he says, "there's no real military significance to Bakhmut. Rather, it's a political one, a message that Putin and the Wagner Group can bring back to the Russian people."

FADEL: OK, I'm going to take a turn for a second. The U.S. says it's going to start training Ukrainian soldiers in the United States. How could that help Ukraine?

NADWORNY: Well, it's going to help defend against Russian air attacks, which have happened frequently throughout the (inaudible). So starting as early as next week, about a hundred Ukrainian troops will come to a military base in Oklahoma to get trained on the Patriot missile defense system. So this is the air defense weapon that Ukrainians have been asking for for quite some time. The training is going to happen at Fort Sill, and it's expected to last several months, according to the Pentagon. So that's defending the air. For the ground fight, there are more weapons heading to Ukraine, among them armored vehicles from Germany, France and the U.S. And there's hope that this wave of weapons from Europe will keep growing - perhaps more from the U.K., others like tanks, fighter jets and longer-range missiles.

FADEL: NPR's Elissa Nadworny in Kyiv. Thanks, Elissa, and stay safe.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dwane Brown
Dwane Brown is a multiple award-winning newscaster for NPR and joined the network in December 2015. He is the first newscaster to broadcast from NPR West in Culver City, California. His newscasts air during All Things Considered.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.