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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Hollywood writers are striking against the major studios.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Yeah, writers are demanding updates to their contracts to keep up with the streaming era, and they don't want to be replaced by AI. After talks failed last night, leaders of the Writers Guild of America union called on their members to stop working. Their three-year contract with the studios expired at midnight.

MARTÍNEZ: Here to tell us all about it is NPR's culture correspondent Mandalit del Barco, who is in LA. Mandalit, the Writers Guild of America has been in negotiations with the studio since March. So tell us more about this latest development.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Yeah. Well, the WGA told its members that this afternoon they'll begin picketing outside studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers - Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery, Warner, NBC, Universal, Paramount and Sony. The striking writers might be joined by actors, directors and behind-the-scenes workers. Their unions are supporting the WGA. And in a statement last night when the Guild announced the strike, they said that their negotiators had tried to make a fair deal, but, quote, "The studio's responses have been wholly insufficient given the existential crisis writers are facing."

Now, in its own statement, the AMPTP said it had presented a package proposal to the guild that included what it called generous increases in compensation for writers. The studios alliance also said that the sticking points had something to do with mandatory staffing and the duration of employment on shows.

MARTÍNEZ: What exactly have writers been asking for?

DEL BARCO: Well, these writers say they should be paid more for writing films, TV shows and now streaming series. And they say especially with the shift to streaming, their work has been devalued. Writers I've interviewed tell me the residuals that they're getting are just peanuts. That's what - the money that they get when their episodes are rerun. They also say that the streamers are asking for fewer episodes in each season, and that means less work and less money for them. I talked to Alex O'Keefe, one of the writers for the FX series "The Bear."

ALEX O'KEEFE: Yes, the show was a hit, but I don't get paid every time somebody watches it. I don't get paid every time somebody says, yes, chef. Hey, I don't expect to make the majority of the profits or anything like that. I just added my spice. It was a whole operation to cook up that show. But we don't receive the residuals that people associate with television shows.

DEL BARCO: Alex says writers are gig workers with no job security, constantly having to look for work. And he told me that between gigs he is broke.

MARTÍNEZ: You mention the deadline passed at midnight. What have studios been saying about this? Are they open to keeping negotiations going?

DEL BARCO: Well, they did leave the door open for that, and they said they were looking for the long-term health and stability of the industry. These contract negotiations have been happening at a time when the streamers are facing concerns about their profitability. And there also, of course, are worries about a possible recession. Over the past year or so, companies such as Disney, Warner Brothers, Discovery, Amazon and Netflix have laid off thousands of employees.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So tonight, Mandalit, or later today, when people start to watch stuff, how will our watching be affected by the strike?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, the studios have reportedly been stockpiling scripts for months. Viewers might not notice any changes right away for most TV shows or streaming series or films. But audiences might notice tonight or this weekend the effect on late-night talk shows and "SNL." Those writers won't be working.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR culture correspondent Mandalit del Barco in Los Angeles. Thanks.

DEL BARCO: Thanks.

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MARTÍNEZ: Sometimes it takes a deadline to get things done. Well, now lawmakers have a deadline. They have to settle the debt ceiling debate by June 1.

FADEL: Yeah, that's when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says the government could run out of money to pay its bills unless Congress acts first to raise the borrowing limit. Yellen's warning adds new urgency to what had been a slow-motion standoff here in Washington. President Biden has called top lawmakers to talks at the White House next week.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley is here with us. Scott, we've known the government cash crunch is nigh. What's Janet Yellen saying about this deadline?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: She's saying it could come sooner than we thought. Most forecasters had expected the government would be able to limp along through mid-July, maybe early August, before running short of cash. But after reviewing the April tax receipts, Secretary Yellen says the crunch time could come as early as June 1. Now, it's hard to say exactly. It could be later than that. But at some point, unless the debt ceiling is lifted, the government's going to find itself with more bills to pay than it has cash on hand, and then somebody's going to get stiffed. Maybe it's a Social Security recipient or a member of the military or a government bondholder. Defaulting on any of those obligations would be unprecedented, so Yellen is urging lawmakers not to let that happen. She wants Congress to let the government borrow more money so it can keep paying all of its bills.

MARTÍNEZ: And what has been the holdup?

HORSLEY: House Republicans are demanding big spending cuts and other policy changes in exchange for voting to authorize additional borrowing. The White House says it's not willing to negotiate. It argues the full faith and credit of the government should not be used as a bargaining chip. We went through something similar to this back in 2011, and a deal was finally struck at the eleventh hour, but it was a scarring experience, and Yellen urged lawmakers not to go down that road again.

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JANET YELLEN: Even coming close to the debt ceiling without raising it - we saw in 2011 that led to a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating, and this will raise borrowing costs for American households and businesses for a good long time.

HORSLEY: House Republicans are pretty dug in, though. Last week they passed a bill by the narrowest of margins that would curb federal spending and impose a wish list of other GOP priorities. In exchange, the bill would let the government keep borrowing money, but only until next spring, when we might have to go through this all over again.

MARTÍNEZ: Scott, you mentioned how the White House doesn't want to negotiate on this. So what happens now?

HORSLEY: Well, about the time Yellen spelled out that June 1 deadline yesterday, President Biden invited top lawmakers to a White House meeting next week. The administration says Biden will use that meeting to stress the urgency of preventing a government default. Separately, they say, the president will discuss a process to address government spending and next year's budget. Now, separately is the key word there. The administration wants to make the point that spending and budgeting are fair game for negotiations and horse trading, but lifting the debt ceiling is not.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so what are lawmakers doing?

HORSLEY: Well, the Senate has started going through the motions to consider the House bill, which has no chance in the Democratic-controlled chamber. Democrats call it the Default on America Act. The Senate is also weighing an alternative bill that would simply suspend the debt limit for two more years.

MARTÍNEZ: And this comes at a really sensitive time for the U.S. economy, so how does a fight over this debt ceiling affect the broader economic outlook?

HORSLEY: Yeah, the economy already has plenty of challenges. Growth is slowing. Prices are high. The last thing the economy needs right now is a totally avoidable government default. And if you believe the Treasury secretary's timetable, lawmakers have a little less than a month to take that threat off the table.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

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MARTÍNEZ: The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today on Supreme Court ethics after findings that Justice Clarence Thomas didn't disclose two decades of luxury gifts from a wealthy Republican donor.

FADEL: And there are other questions around the business dealings of other justices as well. Last week, Politico reported that Justice Neil Gorsuch didn't disclose the identity of the person who bought property from him in Colorado. It turned out to be the head of a law firm that has multiple cases before the Supreme Court. And over the weekend, Business Insider reported that Chief Justice John Roberts' wife made more than $10 million in commissions from elite law firms.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now to talk about all this is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, why are they holding this hearing when none of the people involved are testifying?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: 'Cause I think we're at a bit of a tipping point. In the last couple of years, legal ethics experts who for years said, look, they're not violating the code of conduct have changed their tune, at least certainly about some of Thomas's behavior. And the rest of these reports, they say, are just a kind of drip, drip, drip that makes it look bad for the court. And it's time, they think, for the court to write its own code of conduct.

There's nothing wrong with a spouse having a job. Jane Roberts, the chief justice's wife, for instance, actually left being a lawyer and became a recruiter so that she would not be working for firms on matters that might come before the court. And there is nothing wrong with Neil Gorsuch selling his property. He's allowed to do that. He should have said who bought it. But it turned out he didn't know the guy. The guy was actually a Democrat.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Nina, what can Congress actually do?

TOTENBERG: Well, the court is a separate branch of government. Congress can't tell it what to do. But there is, for example, a bill that would require the court to write its own code of conduct that it makes public and is clear about. And I think these kinds of suggestions will come more and more and more. Professor Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas wrote that the reason that these news reports have such traction is that there's no independent person who can say, look, this is a nothingburger. In all the agencies of government - in Congress and in the executive branch - there's some form of independent investigator who can look at stuff and say, no, this is nothing, and can say no, you need to do something about this. But that doesn't exist with the court. And until the court creates its own code of conduct and I suspect tries to do something about having an independent voice looking at what it does, that's not going to change.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Nina, how is the court responding to all this?

TOTENBERG: The court is an institution steeped in tradition and steeped in opaqueness. You do not know what's going on there. And it says over and over again, look, what we do, you do see. It's our opinions. They just can't perceive the idea that times have changed and people don't just trust them. And because of that, as Amanda Frost from UVA, who's going to be testifying today, says, they are unable to distinguish - they are unable to perceive how much trouble they're in.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.