Axios - Business

News turns to comedy in the Trump era

Rebecca Zisser/Axios

At a time of political uncertainty and confusion, news outlets are using new types of comedic relief to relate to their readers.

The role of comedy in news isn't novel, but it's transforming. It used to be that comedy and voice were limited mostly to opinion pages, but now it's become an important part of the way journalists communicate the news. As veteran political cartoonist Ted Roll explains, "Shortly after World War II, The New York Times, which today has none, employed four cartoonists on staff. Today there are fewer than 30 (in the U.S.)."


  • The Boston Globe's Editor Brian McGrory put out a 3,000+ word memo Monday about creating a blueprint for their coverage in the future. Humor was a point of focus:
We're going to be more humorous, god dammit, and absolutely more humane.
  • The Washington Post announced in January that it's hiring video journalists to produce what looks to be a Daily Show-style scripted humor series.
  • The New York Times created a new "best of late night" feature, where the paper posts a recap of the best moments, usually news-related, from late-night shows.


  • Fusion turned to its sister publication, The Onion, to write satirical news banners to appear next to Fusion's coverage of the President's first address to Congress.
  • MSNBC took a similar approach that night, recruiting comedian Kathy Griffin to react to the speech in real time on live TV during Chris Matthew's 8 p.m. hour, where she made jokes about Congressman looking at Melania in her sequin jacket.
  • Showtime's The Circus often uses humor to make an editorial point about how unusual the current political environment is. For example, leading up to the release of the Congressional Budget Office's health care score in March, Circus hosts Mark Halperin and Mark McKinnon staked out the CBO cafeteria, catching the staff there by surprise. The pair did everything they could to get everyday CBO workers to talk to them at their own comedic expense, like offer workers free pizza and using makeshift signs made out of cardboard lunch trays to lure people into conversation.


  • Buzzfeed turned the photos of Trump riding a truck at The White House into a funny viral post and less than 24 hours later, their product lab had created a children's book out of it.
  • Bloomberg Politics published a satirical version of Ocean's Eleven during the Las Vegas vice presidential debate to explain why voter fraud is unlikely to occur during the election.
  • CNN earlier this year created a humorous digital series around political reporter Chris Moody, that featured videos like "Boat-crashing the GOP establishment."
  • Vox published a satirical commercial during the election spoofing Trump's debate comment calling Hilary Clinton a "nasty woman."
  • WNYC's On the Media host Brooke Gladstone tells Axios that she uses humor in her media investigative show because, "Humor gives responsible parties cover for saying what's real, and decrying what's reprehensible, without the backlash suffered by mainstream media. And so, ironically, it serves the audience in a way that even the best straight journalism often cannot."
  • Pod Save America, a podcast run by former Obama staffers, uses humor constantly to explain the twists and turns of the Trump Administration. In one episode, hosts Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor joke: "It's the rich versus the racist in the White House."

On the flip side: Comedy has always the news as a peg, but lately, the news has taken on a larger role.

  • Late-night: There's no question the Trump Era has given rise to the late-night comedy boom. Earlier this year Alec Baldwin brought in SNL's highest-rated show since 2011. Per CNN, SNL is averaging 10.6 million weekly viewers, the show's biggest audience in 22 years. Stephen Colbert's Late Show has seen an unprecedented ratings bump over late-night competitor Jimmy Fallon, which critics attribute to Colbert's reputation and ability to explain politics.
  • Stand-up: Vulture spoke to 16 comedians, and many said that comedy is becoming increasingly political in their routines.
  • Washington: This year, comedian Samantha Bee will be hosting an anti-White House Correspondents Association Dinner, in response to news organizations and celebrities boycotting The Trump Administration.

Something to consider: Some comedians are wary of overindulging in Trump fever. John Oliver said last month he is "very anxious not to make it all Trump all the time." South Park creators have too said that they will be backing off of Trump-focused humor. "It's really tricky now as satire has become reality," co-creator Trey Parker said in February. "They're already going out and doing the comedy. It's not something you can make fun of."

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Uber and Lyft are being sued for their software

Richard Vogel / AP

Apparently, the software that you rely on to hail an Uber or Lyft from your phone was dreamed up in 1997. At least that's what Hailo Technologies, LLC. says after suing the two ride-sharing companies for allegedly infringing on their patent that was granted in 1999.

Sounds familiar: The patent covers an "automated vehicle dispatch and payment honoring system" that allows users to select a mode of transportation, enter in the number of passengers and your desired destination, which will then provide an estimated cost for the trip and accept your digital payment.

Programming note: Hailo Technologies, LLC. has no relation to Daimler's Hailo, the ride-sharing service that operates in Europe and North America.

Why it matters: While it's unclear how much this could actually hurt their brand from a consumer's perspective, this is just another legal battle Uber is facing in a growing list of controversies from the past few months alone.

Get up to speed: We've written about their lawsuit from Waymo, including the full history of their legal fight, their PR and self-driving car execs leaving the company, and the allegations that they used secret software to track Lyft, among others.


American Airlines is having a United moment

Alan Diaz / AP

An American Airlines flight attendant challenged a passenger to fight him, after the man threatened to hit the attendant, according to a new video that surfaced late Friday night. The flight was traveling from San Francisco to Dallas when the two men almost started fighting before the flight took off.

Flight club: A woman, who was traveling with her baby, wanted to keep her stroller on the flight with her. An AA crew member allegedly "violently" took the stroller from her, "hitting her and just missing the baby," per Surain Adyanthaya, the passenger who recorded the video and put it on social media. A male passenger can be seen getting up from his seat to defend the woman, telling the flight attendant "You do that to me and I'll knock you flat." The flight attendant challenges the man to actually hit him, before the two are separated.

Damage control: The flight attendant has reportedly been suspended. "What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers," AA said in a statement. "The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident."

Buzz: The news quickly took off on Twitter, as people were reminded of the United Airlines incident with Dr. David Dao that happened less than two weeks earlier.

Don't forget: This is another example of the big lessons learned from the United situation — that anything airline employees do can (and most likely will) be recorded and shared on social media.


United CEO will no longer be chairman next year

Richard Drew / AP

United Continental Airlines announced in a regulatory filing Friday that CEO Oscar Munoz will not become chairman of the company next year — as previously planned. United said Munoz initiated the change.

Why this matters: This signals a major structural change within the company following the viral incident in which a passenger was forcibly removed from one of its planes. It could also signal that more changes are in store for the airline as they try to repair their reputation.


Another buyout firm gets bought

British investment management company Schroders PLC has agreed to acquire Swiss private equity firm Adveq Management, which has around $7 billion in assets under management, for an undisclosed amount.

Market maker: Private equity has been one of the few missing strategies at Schroders, a FTSE 100 firm with a whopping $465 billion in AUM. So this helps it fill out the asset cupboard, while also helping Adveq expand well beyond its mostly Swiss and German client base (Adveq is expected to keep its entire team and global investment strategy).

Broader context: There is an accelerating trend of private equity firms becoming acquisition targets themselves, either for total control of minority stakes.


WH officials to meet with top drugmakers next month

Greg Baker / AP

Top Trump administration officials are slated to meet with a number of executives from drug companies and government scientific researchers at the White House on May 8, according to an agenda obtained by Bloomberg. The meeting is described in the memo as a chance for "private sector and thought leaders to describe their institution and its connection to federal funding."

Why it matters: This could give biotech executives a chance to make a direct pitch for the value of federal medical research funding, something they've wanted to do ever since President Trump's budget proposed a nearly 20 percent cut in NIH funding.

Who's coming: Vice President Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, HHS Secretary Tom Price, and NIH Director Francis Collins, among others.

Not mentioned: Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, the main advocate of the NIH cuts.


Blackstone is expanding into VC and infrastructure

(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The Blackstone Group is working to launch both venture capital and infrastructure investing programs, according to comments made during Thursday's Q1 earnings call. No specifics were disclosed.

Venture capital: The veteran firm has long avoided real venture, even while some of its peers got involved in the dotcom days. But it has been doing some growth equity investing out of its Tactical Opportunities platform, and recently added early Facebook backer Jim Breyer to its board of directors.

Infrastructure: This is a fairly obvious move, particularly given President Trump's ask for the private sector to match a $200 billion federal outlay on infrastructure by a 5:1 ratio over 10 years.

Blackstone (NYSE: BX) crushed Wall Street estimates, reporting 82 cents in economic net income vs. 68 cent consensus (via Thomson Reuters). This also is more than double Blackstone's 31 cent ENI in Q1 2016. Credit here goes to rising values and distributions. Total AUM was up 7% year-over-year while fee-earning AUM climbed 15%, while those numbers were 4% and 36%, respectively, in the private equity segment.

Two quotables from the earnings call:

  1. President Tony James: "I would say, in general, there's no pressure on fee structures."
  2. CEO Steve Schwarzman: "I've been racking my brain to make sense of this disconnect. If our shares were valued the same as the average S&P company based on dividend yield, the share price would be over $100 a share instead of the $30, where it now is. If we were valued using the average P multiple, the price would be over $50. That's just math. In any case, this disconnect remains a mystery to me. I leave it to you to figure it out."

Uber exec "misspoke" about startup (non)acquisition

Automobile Italia / Flickr cc

Uber chief product officer Jeff Holden recently told the following to a conference audience (video at 13:00):

"We found a startup at Carnegie Melon with some ex-CMU professors called Carnegie Robotics that had this great concentration of people who were just perfect for this and we bought the company and that formed the nucleus of the Uber self-driving team."

But Uber never actually bought Carnegie Robotics, although its CTO did leave for Uber before returning to Carnegie Robotics earlier this year. Instead, Carnegie Robotics was, and remains, an independent company. An Uber spokesman tells Axios that Holden "misspoke."


Drug companies flood Congress with lobbyists

Andrew Harnik / AP

The pharmaceutical industry heavily increased how much it spent on lobbyists in the first quarter of 2017, just as President Trump entered office and skewered drug companies for their high prices. There's bipartisan support for tackling rising drug costs, but drug makers clearly want to maintain the status quo and have tried to turn attention to wholesalers and middlemen in the supply chain.

The details: Axios reviewed lobbying disclosures for 61 of the largest health care companies and trade groups. Those organizations spent more than $90.6 million on lobbying in the first three months of this year, a 20% jump from the $75.7 million in the first quarter of 2016. Twenty-five drug companies and groups — led by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Novartis, Pfizer, Amgen, Teva and Bayer — all significantly bumped up their lobbying expenses.

Here's how a handful of drug companies spent their lobbying dollars so far in 2017 compared with the same period in 2016.

  • PhRMA: $7.98 million vs. $5.95 million
  • Novartis: $4 million vs. $3.09 million
  • Pfizer: $3.74 million vs. $3.28 million
  • Amgen: $3.02 million vs. $1.75 million
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals: $2.67 million vs. $1.24 million
  • Bayer: $2.45 million vs. $2.13 million
  • Biotechnology Innovation Organization: $2.30 million vs. $2.26 million
  • Sanofi: $1.9 million vs. $1.01 million
  • GlaxoSmithKline: $1.64 million vs. $1.49 million
  • Mylan: $1.45 million vs. $610,000
  • Eli Lilly: $1.39 million vs. $1.25 million

PhRMA was the largest lobbying spender in the health care sector in the quarter, but the American Medical Association was close behind at $6.83 million. The American Hospital Association had a lobbying price tag of $4.56 million.

Several health insurance groups also reached deeper into their pockets to sway the new Congress. The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association ($2.15 million), UnitedHealth Group ($1.65 million), Anthem ($1.64 million), Aetna ($1.38 million) and Cigna ($1.15 million) each boosted their lobbying expenses in the first quarter compared with the same period a year ago. Changes to the Obamacare marketplaces and repealing Obamacare's health insurance tax were at the tops of their wish lists.

However, American's Health Insurance Plans — the industry's main lobbying group that does not include Aetna or UnitedHealth as members — lowered its spending from $2.21 million to $1.65 million.


Apple has recruited two top Google satellite execs

Eric Risberg / AP

Apple has hired a pair of top Google satellites execs for a new hardware team, reports Bloomberg. John Fenwick, who led Google's spacecraft operations, and Michael Trela, head of satellite engineering, will report to Greg Duffy, co-founder of camera maker Dropcam, who joined Apple earlier this year.

What they're saying: The recruits are experts in the field of satellite design and operation, and could be part of a new plan to use satellites for collecting images and communications. Bloomberg also reported that Boeing has been in talks with Apple about being an investor-partner in the aerospace company's plan to use satellites to provide increased broadband access, but its unclear if a deal will be reached.