In Memoriam: Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
On Thursday, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo passed away from cancer at the age of 61. Xiaobo "held vigil" over the protest at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and later promoted a pro-democracy charter that landed him in jail. He spent the remainder of his life imprisoned. The Chinese government revealed in June that Xiaobo had cancer, at which point he was beyond treatment. Xiaobo's wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest and intense surveillance. Her detention has made it difficult for her to publically comment on the medical treatment and care received by her husband. Strong concern for Xiaobo's condition was felt across the globe, a testament to the respect people felt for him and how he was viewed as a symbol for peace and human rights. The Chinese government has been harshly criticized for its treatment of Xiaobo and some have gone as far as to blame the government for his premature death. Xiaobo's condition was not made public until he was unable to receive meaningful treatment, and even after his condition was made known the Chinese refused to release him from custody in order to seek medical treatment abroad. Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. As he was imprisoned at the time, he was not able to accept the Nobel Prize in person. An empty chair, meant to represent him, was a powerful symbol at the ceremony, and the trial statement the Chinese government prohibited from making served as his Nobel lecture. Xiaobo is the second Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in state custody. Among his final words were handwritten notes for the preface of an unpublished collection of his wife's photographs: "Love as intense as ice, love as remote as blackness."
California Supreme Court to Exert Control Over California Bar Exam in Response to Poor Passage Rates
The California Supreme Court announced that it will take control over the bar exam and change the way the certification score for passing the California bar examination is set. Long seen as one of the most difficult bar exams in the country, the California exam boasts the second highest benchmark for a passing score - 144 (second only to Delaware, with a required score of 145 to pass). Last year's passage rates for first time test takers in California reached a new low of 62%. Deans from 20 ABA-accredited law schools in California came together to petition the state Supreme Court to take control of the exam and set a lower passing score. They say the high benchmark keeps many qualified candidates out of the profession. Those in favor of retaining the current passage requirements argue that the state has an ethical obligation to ensure that only well-prepared lawyers join the bar. Many first-time test takers who fail the California exam would pass most others. Each state offers its own bar exam, although many have moved towards a uniform exam. The major differentiation is where the states set their own passing scores. Justices of the California Supreme Court stated that they will announce their decision in September, and the new regulations will go in effect in January.
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The Path From Miss Universe to Accusations of Russian Collusion
In 2013, Moscow hosted the Miss Universe pageant. At the time, Donald Trump mused on Twitter whether he would meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, and if so, whether "he will become my new best friend." While the two didn't meet that fall, Trump made deep connections with several other people who, through a series of connections, ultimately led to Donald Trump, Jr. meeting last year with an attorney linked to the Kremlin. Russian pop star Emin Agalarov and the pop star's father, Aras, sponsored the pageant in Russia. The two are real estate developers who have a relationship with the Kremlin. Trump has remained in contact with the Agalarovs over the years, and it was Emin, through his publicist, who requested that the younger Trump meet with attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya. The Agalarovs introduced President Trump to many prominent Russians, including, in Trump's words, "top-level people, both oligarchs and generals, and top-of-the government people." The Agalarovs introduced him to former Russian economy minster Herman Gref, who hosted a dinner in Trump's honor during his time in Moscow. As part of the pageant, Miss Universe contestants were made to appear in one of Emin's music videos. While any potential plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow were abandoned when Trump announced his presidential bid, the Agalarovs continued to exchange messages with the President.
Donald Trump Jr. came under harsh criticism this week for his failure to disclose the meeting with Veselnitskaya, which took place in Trump Tower in June 2016. Trump Jr. was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton, which was said to come from a senior Russian government official. Trump Jr. was told that the information would incriminate Secretary Clinton and be useful for his father. The story continues to unfold, but last weekend the exchange of emails between Trump Jr., and Emin's publicist, Rob Goldstone, was made public by Donald Jr. just minutes before the New York Times was set to publish them. Each day more facts come to light, including the number of people in the meeting. President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and several others were present, although Donald Jr. only initially disclosed the presence of Kushner at the meeting. The White House is reeling in the wake of these revelations, and several reports emerge each day with new facts and information surrounding the meeting. The President defended his son, stating that "anyone" would have taken the meeting, and it was "standard practice" to do so. Several former Republican campaign advisors stated that their approach would have been to ignore the contact and/or notify the FBI.
The $31 million distribution deal between Universal Music Group (Universal) and Prince's estate for Prince's music catalog was rescinded by a judge, after Universal made claims of fraud and misrepresentation by the estate during negotiations. The catalog includes previously unreleased recordings and a set of "disputed rights" that became the heart of the case between the parties. Universal claimed that several of the rights to Prince's catalog were already held by Warner Bros. Records, and was not disclosed as part of the negotiations for the distribution deal. Warner Bros. owned the rights to many of Prince's early albums, and claims that a deal was signed with Prince in 2014 to extend the duration of the rights for those early works. Lawyers for Prince's estate claim no wrongdoing, and the court neither addressed Universal's claims of fraud against the legal team, nor interpreted the underlying contracts for the rights to Prince's catalog. The estate now will have to refund the full price for the distribution rights, which were paid as an advance, and shop the catalog for a new buyer.
Charges against Brooklyn resident Daryl Campbell, a/k/a Taxstone, were handed down on Thursday. Campbell was accused of the fatal shooting of Ronald McPhatter, a bodyguard, during a T.I. concert in Manhattan last year. Three other people were also injured during the shooting, including Roland Collins, a rapper with the stage name Troy Ave, who was also accused of firing a weapon and was charged with attempted murder. For months prior to the shooting, Campbell and Collins engaged in a "war of words". Surveillance video shows the confrontation and resulting shooting incident. The murder weapon was found in the car that brought Collins to the hospital after the shooting. Collins claims that he is the victim, as he wrestled Campbell's gun away and used it in self-defense. The firearms charge against Campbell were a twist in the investigation. He plead guilty in federal court last month to receiving a firearm by interstate commerce with the intent to commit a felony and possessing a firearm as a felon. He was indicted on the murder charges by a state grand jury on Thursday.
Lawyers for actor James Franco sent a cease-and-desist letter to the New York theater that was to present the play, "James Franco and Me", a satire that has been running without issue at the Epic Theater in Rhode Island. Author Kevin Broccoli was surprised and disappointed by the letter, and maintains that the play is satirical in nature and within the bounds of fair use guidelines. Broccoli chose James Franco as part of the play out of admiration for the actor. The play is about a man, played by Broccoli, who is in the hospital visiting his dying father. In the play, Franco comforts the son, and the characters forge a bond reflecting on life and mortality. Instead of change the show in response to the letter, the New York production was cancelled. Broccoli will run a new version of the show for one night only, titled "___________ and Me", removing any reference to Franco from the production.
Bolshoi Postpones Controversial Nureyev Ballet Claiming Lack of Preparation, Not Censorship
The Bolshoi was set to premiere a much-anticipated ballet this week about the life of dance legend Rudolf Nureyev. General Director of the Bolshoi, Vladimir G. Urin, stated in a press conference last week that the premiere would be delayed - likely until after May 2018. The ballet's central character, Rudolf Nureyev, was a highly controversial figure in Russia. He was an openly gay man whose sexuality influenced his work. The Russian government's 2013 ban against "gay propaganda" and its current emphasis on "Family Values" has caused many to speculate that the Bolshoi is caving to pressure from the Kremlin. A leaked video of a rehearsal, which showed male dancers performing in high heels, sparked outrage, with people calling the Russian culture minister to ban the production. Urin maintained that the motivation behind the cancellation was that it needed more work, as the choreography requires intense coordination, and recent rehearsals were shaky.
Police raids have become a common occurrence for those in the indie music community in Hong Kong. Popular clubs, or "live houses," are often infiltrated by police, who aggressively address violations of building regulations or accusations that foreign citizens are performing without proper visas. Several decades ago many manufacturing companies relocated their businesses to mainland China, leaving a swath of abandoned factories in their wake. The indie music community quickly embraced the abandoned factories as performance and gathering spaces. While the clubs were far from fancy, they thrived. However, Hong Kong's extensive system of building regulations, zoning laws, and performance rules continuously "impede artistic expression and cultural development" in the territory. On top of the sea of regulations, an industrial revitalization program was recently rolled out, incentivizing building owners to convert the factories into office space. This has caused a spike in rent, adding additional costs above and beyond the already costly public entertainment license the venues are required to obtain in order to operate. Lawmakers are starting to notice the impediments to cultural development and are planning to introduce new legislation aimed at live houses, creating avenues for them to operate as long as they meet reasonable safety standards.
LA and Paris on the Cusp of Receiving Olympic Bids
In an unusual move, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this week unveiled a plan to award the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics simultaneously - likely to be awarded to Los Angeles and Paris. Official voting will take place on September 13th in Lima, Peru. The cities must both agree on hosting arrangements by the vote, otherwise only the 2024 Games will be awarded. Representatives from both cities made their formal presentations to officials this week, with French President Emmanuel Macron supporting the Paris presentation in person and President Trump lending his support for Los Angeles via Twitter. The IOC voted unanimously to change the bidding process, which it believes in the past has cost losing cities incredible amounts of money to participate, and leaves them reluctant to attempt a bid in the future. Many cities withdrew from the current bidding process early, much to the embarrassment of the IOC. In addition to the enthusiasm presented by Paris and Los Angeles, both cities have an established framework for hosting the Games with several stadiums already in place and the capacity to construct temporary structures as needed without great sacrifice. Many people speculate whether the IOC will consider the current political climate when making its final decision - perhaps awarding 2024 to Paris in light of President Macron's ascendancy, and giving the Games to LA in 2028, so they are not hosted during Trump's administration.
Former Team USA Gymnastics Doctor Pleads Guilty to Possession of Child Pornography
Dr. Larry Nassar, former team doctor to the women's Team USA Gymnastics who was accused of sexually assaulting scores of women and girls, also faces unrelated federal charges of possession of child pornography. This week he changed his plea from not guilty to guilty. He is being sued by over 100 women and girls who claim that he sexually assaulted them, and faces three criminal cases in the Lansing, MI area.
Police Say That Prior to Crash, Venus Williams Lawfully Entered Intersection
After reviewing new evidence, police investigating the fatal crash involving Venus Williams issued a new report stating that Williams lawfully entered the intersection prior to the crash. The initial report stated that she ran a red light, causing another vehicle driving through the intersection with the right of way to crash into her car. Jerome Barton, the passenger in the car, later died in the hospital from injuries sustained in the crash. The Barton family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Williams. The police investigation is ongoing. Williams has publicly expressed her devastation over Barton's death.
FBI Investigated Basketball Hall-of-Famer Bob Knight
The Washington Post reported this week that Basketball Hall of Fame Coach Bob Knight was investigated by the FBI and the Army over complaints of inappropriate behavior back in 2015. Four women accused Knight of groping them at an event held at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Springfield, VA. The FBI interviewed Knight at his home following the allegations, and dropped the investigation shortly thereafter.
This year's the U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship is being held at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, NJ. The women playing in the tournament find themselves having to reconcile the Donald Trump they know - a staunch supporter of women's golf in general and many of the players individually - and President Trump, who presents himself as insensitive to women and often disparages them, consciously or unconsciously. The club has served as Trump's summer retreat from Washington. LPGA player Cristie Kerr has known Trump since her early career, and says that he was proactively supportive of women golfers; often hosting the LPGA at Mar-a-Lago and inviting the women to join him on his informal rounds of golf. She often doesn't recognize the public face of President Trump, which is in sharp contrast to the supporter she knew. Lizette Salas, on the other hand, has long been critical of Trump. Salas is the top-earning American female golfer, and long has felt what she calls "subtle sexism" that pervades the sport. Bedminster has been slated to host this year's tournament since 2012 - and regardless of how the women feel about Trump, they recognize the increased visibility that women's golf will receive due to the venue for this year's Open.
Persistent Use of Offensive Chant at Gold Cup Games
Despite concerted efforts to end soccer fans' uses of an offensive chant at this week's Concacaf Gold Cup tournament, Concacaf officials acknowledged that changing fan behavior is a longer-term process. Strategies included a fan education program, public fan pledges not to use the offensive chant, and blocking the chant over the international broadcast feed by adding pretaped crowd noise to drown it out. The chant remained audible over the broadcast through the announcers' microphones, which picked it up. Ending the chant is especially important to the Mexican soccer federation, which has been fined by FIFA due to fan behavior related to the chant. If the individual federations' efforts do not yield results, FIFA has its own plan to implement - including possible team forfeits if they can't control their fans' behavior.
Cancer Leads to Death of Central Figure in FIFA Scandal
One of the central figures in the FIFA scandal died this week in New Jersey. Chuck Blazer, a former member of FIFA's Executive Committee, was in the middle of the investigation of corruption in international soccer. What started with Blazer's failure to file personal income tax returns, lead to an international investigation of improprieties in the soccer world, including racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. The case in the U.S. alone included over 40 defendants. In Europe, Swiss authorities made a surprise arrest at FIFA headquarters in 2015, and are conducting an ongoing, independent criminal investigation. Blazer was instrumental in the early stages of the investigation. He cooperated as a witness and provided secret, insider testimony that revealed the international scope of corruption. During his lifetime, Blazer was known as an eccentric figure who dominated the soccer world. He earned the nickname "Mr. 10 Percent" from his uncanny ability to collect commissions. His lavish lifestyle and public persona ultimately could not mask the money laundering, bribes, unauthorized ticket sales, and kickback payments. He quickly agreed to cooperate and recorded conversations with international soccer officials for the authorities. FIFA barred him for life from soccer-related activities, but he was never formally sentenced for his criminal acts.
Google is celebrating a big victory in France, as a French court ruled in its favor, agreeing that Google did not have to pay $1.3 billion in back taxes the French government claims it is owed for services Google sold in France through its Irish-based subsidiary. Ireland is a popular tax haven in Europe due to its low corporate tax rates. Many global companies, including Google, opened subsidiaries in Ireland in order to take advantage of these favorable tax rates. Google also has a French subsidiary, which employs 700 people. Despite this presence in France, the company used its Irish-based division to sell goods and services to consumers in France. French authorities argued that Google's French employees were "instrumental" in selling the services, even though the contracts were with the Irish subsidiary. The French court agreed with Google that the company operated within the bounds of French law and international business standards. Tax authorities in France plan to appeal the decision.
Trump Administration Planning to Rescind "Start Up Visa" Rule for Foreign Entrepreneurs
The International Entrepreneur Rule was designed under the Obama administration to use the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) "Parole authority" to allow qualifying foreign entrepreneurs temporary entry into the United States without a visa. In order to qualify for the program, an entrepreneur would have to have concrete, significant financial backing. The duration of the stay was to be limited to 30 months, with the opportunity for an extension. Many in the tech world lauded this as a way to boost the startup industry. DHS this week announced that it would delay, if not fully eliminate, the rule, in response to President Trump's January 25, 2017 Executive Order on improvements to border security and immigration enforcement. Silicon Valley is dismayed - tech leaders are saying that the U.S. will lose credibility as a "beacon of innovation", and that the decision to potentially rescind the rule is short-sighted and underestimates the value of jobs and industry growth foreign entrepreneurs bring when they decide to launch their businesses in the U.S. Implementation of the rule is delayed until March 14, 2018, during which time DHS will solicit public comments on its plan to fully rescind the rule.
In Effort to Wire Rural Communities, Microsoft Attempting to Harness Unused TV Channels
10 years in the making, Microsoft announced its plans to tap into "white space", or unused TV channels, as a vehicle to provide Internet access to rural parts of the country that are without access to broadband service. Called "super Wi-Fi", the technology behaves like Wi-Fi, but instead of using broadband technology, it uses low-powered TV channels. Super Wi-Fi is more powerful than traditional wireless access, because the vehicle, TV channels, cover greater distances than wireless hot spots. It also is more powerful than cellular technology, because it can penetrate concrete barriers and other obstacles. Over 24 million people in rural areas are currently without Internet access, and Microsoft believes that this is an untapped market ripe for development. There are many barriers to this effort, including the current prohibitive cost of white-space technology. Devices compatible with white-space technology cost upwards of $1,000. Rural areas don't provide economies of scale to incentivize device makers to find ways to reduce costs. Microsoft has four devices it believes can be produced at a cost to consumers of $200 each. The bigger hurdle, however, may be regulatory. Microsoft is seeking approval from federal and state regulators to guarantee the use of the unused TV channels. TV broadcasters are fighting back against white-space technology, which they argue causes interference with broadcasts being run on neighboring channels.
News Outlets/Bargaining Rights Against Google & Facebook
In an effort to increase their bargaining power against media behemoths Google and Facebook, a group of news publishers joined together in an effort to bargain collectively with Google and Facebook regarding digital distribution of the news. Spearheaded by the News Media Alliance, the group will ask Congress for a limited antitrust exemption. By seeking approval to negotiate together, they can avoid the trouble book publishers faced when they participated in Apple's online book platform. The publishers buy-in to this effort is wide - including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, plus a large number of mid-size regional papers. Google and Facebook provide an alternate digital portal to news stories, on which publishers rely to reach a broad audience. Beyond reaching a larger audience, the group's efforts are motivated by the desire to preserve quality journalism - which is expensive to produce and difficult to compete against quick news stories (think "Pope Endorses Trump" and "Millions of Illegal Votes"). Facebook and Google are eager to support journalism. Facebook is working with publishers to develop new ways to sell subscriptions, and Google has changed the algorithms in its News Lab to favor quality news stories. Publishers recognize the efforts, but "economic imbalances" leave them without many options, especially as Facebook and Google hold close to 60% of the online advertising market. Although this type of clearance to collectively bargain is not often granted, Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News Corporation, brings a significant amount of influence to the table with both Congressional Republicans and the White House.
Measured Choice Between Facebook and YouTube for Internet Video Stars
For years YouTube has been the preferred platform for Internet video stars. YouTube shares ad revenue with its stars, which can generate large revenue streams for those with large followings. Its platform allows for subscription-based viewing, allowing stars to develop large numbers of devoted fans. As people go to YouTube specifically to watch videos, the format trends towards longer videos. Historically, Facebook has been seen as a platform best suited for shorter video clips - viewers tend to "stumble" on videos rather than visit the site to watch specific content. Facebook is trying to change this with the introduction of Facebook Live and a pilot program aimed to cultivate Internet video stars, or "creators". In its pilot program, Facebook paid out up to $220,000 for creators to produce exclusive content. The company believes that its platform can provide similar ad revenue as YouTube. Although the participants in the pilot program have received substantial income, some creators are hesitant to make the switch while the program is in its early stages. Despite the inherent differences between the two platforms, many stars use both sites as part of their overall strategy to reach viewers. YouTube tends to be used for more substantive content delivery, and Facebook for marketing purposes and introducing brands to wider audiences. The two companies recently added features to make them more like each other - Facebook added a dedicated video tab, and YouTube recently added a feature that allows people to share videos directly with friends and added a group messaging component. The two platforms offer distinct avenues to viewers for creators, and while some prefer one over the other, many have learned to leverage the features and strengths of both to reach the widest audiences possible.
The first major business deal under the Trump Administration will set the tone for the business world - and everyone is paying close attention. A proposed deal between AT&T and Time Warner has been intensely scrutinized by antitrust officers for months, but remains in limbo as key vacancies in the Justice Department are still unfilled, and as President Trump stated his opposition to the deal and shown willingness to use his administration's oversight as leverage over Time Warner's news network, CNN. While AT&T and Time Warner don't directly compete, antitrust issues are present, due to AT&T's nationwide wireless and DirecTV satellite service, which could be used to charge media companies and other cable and satellite companies' higher fees. For example, AT&T could charge Dish network higher fees for Time Warner content, which in turn could be passed along to rural customers who rely on satellite services. Several lawmakers have spoken out against any efforts by the White House to influence the merger review in light of Trump's contentious relationship with CNN. To some, it comes across as an inappropriate attempt by the government to use "law enforcement authority to alter or censor the press." Despite this increased scrutiny of the merger review, AT&T expects the deal will be approved - and has spent a significant amount of time and money on lobby efforts to see it through to the end.
FCC Opposition Unites Tech Industry in a "Day of Action" Online Protest
Internet companies and public policy groups banded together for what they dubbed a "Day of Action". The protest was aimed at the FCC and its plans to overturn net neutrality rules. Many tech giants are against loosening net neutrality rules, firmly arguing that the rules protect them from broadband companies treating them unfairly. Among those involved were Netflix, Amazon, Reddit, Twitter, and Etsy. Facebook and Google participated through its leaders. The twist in the protest was that many companies that have been active in pushing to rewrite net neutrality rules made statements in support of the protest. Among the companies seen to be in favor of loosening net neutrality rules, but which indicated their support of the protest, were Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T. Two possible explanations for this curious support are mere puffery - an attempt to manipulate public perception of the companies' stance on net neutrality, or, more plausibly, that the companies believe the better approach to net neutrality is through Congressional legislation, not FCC regulation. While legislation may be hard to come by, many are starting to think that it is a better, long-term solution to the neutrality fight. Perhaps a better outcome can be achieved through a legislative approach, taking into consideration business and consumer interests - which are often more aligned than it initially appears. Broadband companies have a healthy monetary interest in keeping their consumers happy. Deregulation that leads to slower load times, paid bundles of services are likely to anger consumers, hurting the bottom lines. The landscape may be ripe for legislative compromise, and the Day of Action brought to light this willingness to negotiate.
Tronic Bid to Acquire the Chicago Sun-Times Stymied by Investment Group
An investment group headed by businessman Edwin Eisendrath and the Chicago Federation of Labor won its bid to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times, ending months of speculation that the city would become a one-paper town. Publishing company Tronic, which owns The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and The Baltimore Sun, was heavily favored to acquire the Sun-Times. The Sun-Times took matters in its own hands when it looked like Tronic was all but confirmed to finalize the acquisition, by publishing a full-page ad saying that it was looking for new ownership. Former owner of the Sun-Times Michael W. Ferreo Jr. became a majority stakeholder in Tronic in 2011, and transferred ownership of the Sun-Times to a charitable trust to avoid appearance of a conflict of interest. In response to concern that Tronic and Ferro would own two newspapers in Chicago, Eisendrath rallied the support of over 300 labor groups to submit a bid for the paper.