Apr 21, 2023 - Podcasts

Justice Clarence Thomas under scrutiny

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been in the headlines this month for possible ethics breaches, following a report from ProPublica that for decades he received gifts from a billionaire GOP donor. Pressure is now mounting for action.

  • Plus, a SpaceX rocket launch and explosion.
  • Also, some good news about the Florida panther.
  • And, AI gets into viral music-making.

Guests: Axios' David Lindsey and National Geographic's Carlton Ward Jr.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday, April 21st.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we’re following today: a SpaceX rocket launch and explosion. And, AI gets into viral music-making. Plus: some good news about the Florida panther. But first, Justice Clarence Thomas under scrutiny. That’s our One Big Thing.

Justice Clarence Thomas under scrutiny

NIALA: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been in the headlines this month for possible ethics breaches, following a report from ProPublica that for decades he received gifts from a billionaire GOP donor. Pressure is now mounting for action, and yesterday the Senate Judiciary Committee requested testimony from Chief Justice John Roberts about the ethical standards of the Supreme Court.

Here for our Friday's state of play is Axios’ Managing Editor of Politics David Lindsey.

David, can you catch us up quick with Justice Clarence Thomas's ties to Harlan Crow.

DAVID: For decades, Harlan Crow, who's the billionaire son of a Dallas developer, had provided Clarence Thomas and his wife Ginni with all sorts of vacations trips on, uh, Crow's Yacht. ProPublica estimated that one trip alone in 2019 would've been worth $500,000. The catch was that Thomas had never reported any of this on his financial disclosure forms.

NIALA: So Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin has asked Chief Justice John Roberts to appear at a public hearing on May 2nd. What can we expect from this?

DAVID: Durbin's letter to the chief justice, told the chief justice that he was not expected to answer questions about other matters besides ethics of the court. It could be read to say that he won't be asked about Clarence Thomas. It's hard to believe though, that if Justice Roberts appears before the judiciary panel, that they would not ask him about Clarence Thomas. Because several Democrats not only have called for ethics reform on the Supreme Court, they've said that Thomas should resign, or they've called for the impeachment of Clarence Thomas.

NIALA: What has Justice Thomas's response been to all?

DAVID: He issued a statement that said that early in his tenure that he had checked with people in the judiciary and was told that he didn't have to report it necessarily if they didn't have business from the court. But experts said that he did have to, under the requirements of Supreme Court ethics. Since then there's been a big debate about whether those guidelines should be made more clear.

NIALA: David, you mentioned that some Senate Democrats are calling for theThomas's impeachment or for the chief justice to open an investigation. How likely is any of that to happen?

DAVID: Unlikely, but it is another issue for Justice Roberts to deal with. The backdrop to this is Ginni Thomas. The controversy over Ginni Thomas's role in the January 6th insurrection and opposing the 2020 election results. And a lot of Democrats who are calling out Clarence Thomas now, kind of have that in the back of their mind. This is a politically charged situation. And that's kind of hard to separate from what's happening now and if you think that Justice Thomas has become a target for Democrats.

NIALA: David Lindsey is Axios’ managing editor for politics. Thanks, David.

DAVID: Thank you, Niala. Take care.

SpaceX rocket launch and explosion

NIALA: The giant SpaceX Starship rocket launched yesterday from Texas for the first time…then exploded minutes after takeoff. There were no people on board. Elon Musk’s company won a nearly $3 billion contract from NASA two years ago to build the Starship for landing astronauts on the moon. Musk says his team will learn from this for the next attempt in the coming months.

In a moment, how the Florida panther is making a comeback.


Some good news about the Florida panther

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Tomorrow is Earth Day, so today, we wanted to celebrate a success. When it comes to endangered species, we hear a lot about animals that are on the verge of going extinct.

And that was the case with the Florida panther or puma. But 50 years of work, and the last remaining species of puma in the Eastern United States is no longer on the brink of extinction.

That’s thanks in part to the work of National Geographic explorer, photographer, and founder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor project, Carlton Ward, Jr.

His new book Path of the Panther: New Hope for Wild Florida. And he’s got a documentary with the same name that will be on Disney+ April 28. Welcome, Carlton.


NIALA: First, lemme start with the photography. How did a one day assignment with Nat Geo turn into this lifelong project for you?

CARLTON: I went on assignment for one day to try to get a picture in Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. I turned that into a two month effort trying to get a picture of a Florida panther with a camera trap. It became a quest and an obsession. And to me, the ultimate symbol of why we need a wildlife corridor. Like you said in your intro, all the pumas in known existence in the eastern United States have been isolated near the southern tip of Florida. And the only way they're gonna reach sustainable numbers is having access to more territory, more of their historic territory throughout Florida and beyond.

And the only way that's gonna happen is saving a connected network of habitat so that they can recover further north throughout the state. Outside of a place like Big Cypress National, there are very few properties anywhere in the state of Florida under a single ownership that can serve the needs of even a single male Florida panther. So by definition, all the adjacent properties have to work together as one. So you have a state forest and a cattle ranch, and a national park, and a timber operation. All that green space to a panther, it's just home. But it shows us why we need to keep these ribbons of green, these connected swaths of habitat throughout Florida and throughout our country.

NIALA: So that Florida Wildlife Corridor is an 18 million acre network of public and private lands?

CARLTON: That's right, the Florida Wildlife Corridor as designated by the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act in 2021 is 18 million acres, which takes up about half the state of Florida. 10 million acres are existing public lands. They're already protected places like National Parks, national forests, these are our public parks and preserves.

But the problem is they will become islands surrounded by development if we don't protect the green space in between. The goal of the Florida Wildlife Corridor is to create incentives for the protection of those other green spaces so that we have a connected habitat corridor that goes from the Everglades all the way to Georgia and across to Alabama.

NIALA: What other species are helped by this wildlife corridor?

CARLTON: Thousands of species, wide-ranging species like the Florida black bear, but other species like migratory birds, like the swallow-tailed kite. Endangered reptiles like the indigo snake, the bonnet bat, the red cocked woodpecker. So you protect the land you need to save one panther, you end up saving habitat for so many other species of wildlife that depend on that same land.

NIALA: So with the fact that now, we have photographic evidence that panthers are ranging farther through Florida. What do you worry about most with the future survival of the Florida panther?

CARLTON: It's a race against time as to whether we can save enough land fast enough to secure the connections in the Florida Wildlife corridor. So the panther has a lifeline to keep expanding further north in the state. There are still a thousand people a day moving to the state of Florida. It is putting tremendous pressure on our remaining green spaces. And so we need to be really intentional about saving land and saving land soon in order to have any balance between the ecology of this state and the economy that continues to grow.

NIALA: Carlton Ward Jr. is a National Geographic explorer, photographer and founder of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Project. Thanks Carlton.

CARLTON: Thank you. Niala.

AI gets into viral music-making

NIALA: The song “Heart on My Sleeve” by Drake and The Weeknd recently went viral – racking up millions of plays across social media and streaming platforms.

The only problem is … the song isn’t actually sung by those popular musicians…it’s AI-generated.

The fake song was originally posted on TikTok – where it was streamed 15 million times.

The music label – Universal Music Group – got the vocals taken down from nearly every streaming and social media platform this week, for copyright violations.

This most likely won’t be the last time something like this happens as generative AI continues to grow around us. But, what does this mean for music and the way we create and consume it? Is this producing more possibilities or altering the art form forever?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can text me at 202-918-4893.

That’s it for this week. Axios Today is produced by Fonda Mwangi and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our senior sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Alexandra Botti is our supervising producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ editor in chief and Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios’ executive editor. Special thanks as always to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Stay safe, enjoy your weekend and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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