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Morning news brief


It's a lucky break for pop culture that "Barbie," the movie, is in the can. That's because actors are now on strike.


Their union, SAG-AFTRA - that's an acronym - called for the work stoppage against the big studios. The basic question is who receives how much of the profits from a swiftly changing entertainment industry? Some of the actors, of course, are extremely wealthy. But thousands make a marginal living and all face questions about their futures as computers generate more content.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Mandalit del Barco is in Los Angeles. This hasn't happened in decades, so what does it look like?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Some of the actors from SAG-AFTRA have already been picketing outside the studios in solidarity with striking screenwriters. But starting this morning, there will be so many more. The union has more than 100,000 actor members. This is the first time since 1960 that there's a double strike in Hollywood with the actors and writers. Back then, the strikes resulted in union members getting health care and pensions. And it set up a residual system to compensate writers and actors when movies were aired on TV. Now it's a whole new Hollywood ecosystem, especially with the streaming platforms. And actors don't feel they're getting their share of the pie. That's what the president of SAG-AFTRA, Fran Drescher, said when announcing the strike.


FRAN DRESCHER: The jig is up. You cannot keep being dwindled and marginalized and disrespected and dishonored. The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI.

DEL BARCO: She spoke about actors not wanting to be replaced by machines and wanting to share the profits of the Hollywood companies.

MARTÍNEZ: What are studios saying?

DEL BARCO: Well, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, said they offered salary increases in a, quote, "groundbreaking proposal on AI." In a statement, the studio alliance said that SAG-AFTRA has chosen a path that will lead to financial hardship for everyone who depends on the industry. And, you know, in this hard economic climate, studios and the streamers have already been laying off workers. Just before the strike was called, Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, said the writers' and actors' demands were not realistic. SAG-AFTRA obviously disagrees.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And you were at the press conference where Drescher gave that fiery speech. What else did she have to say?

DEL BARCO: Well, certainly, Fran Drescher delivered quite a performance beyond anything she did on her TV show "The Nanny." Though, once on the show, her character did refuse to cross a picket line. She got cheers for speaking out about how the contract negotiations went down. She blasted studio executives for being insulting and greedy.


DRESCHER: I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things, how they plead poverty, that they're losing money left and right, when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them.

DEL BARCO: I do need to make clear that many of us at NPR are members of SAG-AFTRA. But broadcast journalists are under a very different contract, and we're not on strike.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Now, when the writers went on strike, you could say Hollywood at least slowed down. Now it's the actors. I mean, we're at a standstill in Hollywood. So how big of a deal is this, this double strike?

DEL BARCO: Now, according to SAG-AFTRA's rules, striking performers are not allowed to act, sing, dance or do stunts. They can't promote their projects, so no red carpets, no premieres, no press junkets, no award shows, no new movies or TV shows. So now the entire Hollywood machine is on pause.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Mandalit del Barco. Thanks for the info.

DEL BARCO: Thanks.


MARTÍNEZ: OK, now let's travel to a city that's even hotter than other parts of the United States.

INSKEEP: The city is Phoenix, and it makes me sweat just to say this. Temperatures in Phoenix reached at least 110 degrees every day for two weeks now.

MARTÍNEZ: Katherine Davis-Young is with member station KJZZ in Phoenix. Katherine, I'm not kidding here. I called a friend in Phoenix at midnight to find out how hot it was, and he said 100 - 100 at midnight. So does it feel as bad as that sounds?

KATHERINE DAVIS-YOUNG, BYLINE: It is intense. You know, water comes out of my tap scalding hot. If I'm inside and I put my hands to an exterior wall in my house, it's warm. And it really does never let up. I let my dog outside, usually, around 6 a.m. And even early in the morning, I get a blast of hot air as soon as I open the door. So that's part of why this heat spell is so brutal. High temperatures of 115 or 118 make the headlines, but those overnight low temperatures haven't dipped below 85 now for about two weeks. Actually, on Wednesday night, the low temperature was 95. And that has only ever happened six times since recordkeeping began.

MARTÍNEZ: Well, what makes Phoenix, then, even worse than some other places that are getting hotter?

DAVIS-YOUNG: So those overnight lows are part of the way that climate change is even more extreme here. The group Climate Central says summer nighttime temperatures nationwide have risen about 2 1/2 degrees since 1970. So that's true everywhere. But our summer nights have heated up nearly six degrees in that same time period. That's partly because we've just changed the natural landscape so drastically. David Hondula is director of Phoenix's Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. He tells me this is what's known as the urban heat island effect.

DAVID HONDULA: The dark, hard surfaces in the city tends to be really good at absorbing and retaining heat and slowly re-releasing it at night compared to the much brighter surrounding sandy desert environment.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Basically, since cities tend to be paved over, they just can't cool off at night. And cities bring with them lots of machinery and cars and other things that keep temperatures high. So Phoenix has been one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country for several years. And that explosive growth has contributed to this heat island phenomenon.

MARTÍNEZ: And this kind of heat is dangerous, too.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Yes, the number of heat-related deaths in the metro area has been skyrocketing for the past decade. So finding ways to make this city more adaptable to heat is a huge priority.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, but Phoenix has never been a cool place. It's always been hot in Phoenix. So what's it doing to get a little relief?

DAVIS-YOUNG: So I mentioned Hondula's Office of Heat Response and Mitigation. That office is not even two years old. It's one of the first of its kind in the country. They're working on solutions like a special coating for pavement that prevents some of that heat absorption that causes the heat island effect. But they're also investing in more low-tech solutions, like just planting a lot more trees across the city to create shade. But Hondula tells me urban heat island really needs to be part of the conversation as our population and our city boundaries continue to grow.

MARTÍNEZ: That's KJZZ's Katherine Davis-Young. Thanks a lot, Katherine. Stay cool if you can.

DAVIS-YOUNG: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: The federal deficit nearly tripled in the first nine months of the fiscal year - so how's this for a gusher of red ink? - nearly $1.4 trillion.

INSKEEP: Everything is affecting this. Government spending is up. Tax collections have slumped. And rising interest rates mean it's costing more for the government to borrow money to close the gap.

MARTÍNEZ: Let's ask NPR's Scott Horsley about that. Scott, I mean, even for the federal government - I mean, $1.4 trillion? It sounds like a lot of money. So what's happening?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Well, A, the government was already in a deep hole, and it has continued to dig. Spending over the last nine months was up about 10% compared to the same period a year earlier. Health care bills that Medicare and Medicaid pays are rising. Social Security spending is also up. Remember, Social Security recipients got a big cost of living adjustment at the beginning of this year to help make up for last year's high inflation. And at the same time, tax revenues are down about 11%. A lot of that is because of a drop in investment gains last year. The stock market was mostly down in 2022, so capital gains were down last year. That means capital gains taxes are down this year. So more money going out, less money coming in. That is a recipe for growing deficits.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, how much, then, is it costing the government to borrow that money?

HORSLEY: More than it used to. The government can still borrow money fairly cheaply, but not as cheaply as it once did. This deficit adds to an already large government debt of around $32 trillion. Interest on that debt in the last nine months was $652 billion. That's more than we spent on the military during that period. Maya MacGuineas, who leads the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, says this is just not a sustainable path for the federal government.

MAYA MACGUINEAS: With inflation and higher interest rates, I think it's harder for anybody to credibly look at this situation and say this is healthy. And I do think that the discussion needs to start in earnest for people saying what they would do to address it.

MARTÍNEZ: The discussion hasn't started? (Laughter) It's got to be - are we hearing any discussion on that?

HORSLEY: Not a whole lot. We just went through this big showdown over the federal debt limit. But the deal that came out of that really just nibbled around the edges of this problem. Congressional Republicans insist they will not consider any increase in taxes. The Biden administration has ruled out cuts to major spending programs like Medicare and Social Security. Ultimately, it will probably take some combination of both those things to narrow this budget gap and get to something more manageable.

Michael Peterson, who heads the foundation his father Peter Peterson started to promote fiscal responsibility, says he would like to see a bipartisan commission to look at all sides of the federal budget and make recommendations about how to bridge this gap, even though he acknowledges commissions are often just an excuse in Washington to kick the can down the road.

MICHAEL PETERSON: I understand that the track record of commissions is not stellar, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea to give it another try. And I think what's good about it is that it's a forced, serious, comprehensive dialogue on a bipartisan basis. And unfortunately, that's rare these days in Washington.

HORSLEY: Very rare. The Fitch bond rating agency warned last month that partisanship and polarization are some of the biggest fiscal challenges facing the U.S. The country and the government have lots of strengths, Fitch said - a strong economy, dynamic businesses, a dollar that's prized around the world. And yet the bond rating agency said our spotless rating could be jeopardized because of weak governance. Now, maybe the rising price tag on this deficit will spark some action. Just yesterday, a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers announced they are forming a new group to tackle the nation's debt and deficit problem. They call themselves the Bipartisan Fiscal Forum - or BFF.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks for checking in.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF VANILLA BEACH'S "LEAFY GREENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.